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Last week's recall of 19 million pounds of hamburger exposed major weaknesses in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspection program, according to politicians and consumer groups, who are now seeking reform of federal meat inspection regulations.
The recall, the second-largest of its kind in U.S. history, was ordered after E.coli-tainted meat from a ConAgra Foods Inc. plant in Colorado sickened at least 28 people in seven states. Critics maintain that the federal government suspected potential problems months ago and should have acted then.
The case has already sparked some changes in USDA's food safety procedures, and the agency has pledged to more quickly notify plants and their customers when contamination is discovered. But consumer advocates say the moves are not nearly enough to protect consumers from tainted meat.
With business reform on the minds of many Americans, House and Senate Democrats want to impose penalties on companies that produce unsafe meat. And industry watchdog groups are calling for a congressional investigation into the events leading to the massive meat recall, which is being linked to still more illnesses around the country.
"The ConAgra recall is not an aberration. It is another example of a food safety system that is teetering on the brink of collapse," said Wenonah Hauter, a director with consumer group Public Citizen. "It's time for the Congress to take a good, hard look into USDA food-safety policies and how they are implemented." In particular, critics have blasted USDA's Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, or HACCP, food safety program, a relatively new program that replaced the old "sniff-and-poke" approach done by government inspectors at private plants.
Because HACCP allows companies to do their own testing for E. coli, critics say it gives plants leeway to overlook potentially unsafe products and makes it difficult for inspectors to intercept tainted meat.
Moreover, both the General Accounting Office and consumers groups have complained that USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is understaffed to handle the fast-moving lines at today's huge plants, and its are inspectors poorly trained and slow to sanction plants turning out tainted products.
E. coli O157:H7, the type found in the ConAgra meat, is one of the more virulent strains of bacteria spread between animals by manure-contaminated water. It rests in the intestines and is mixed into meat during butchering.
Infections from this particular bacteria cause severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps in most people; in the elderly and young children, it can cause kidney failure and even death.
Because it is potentially deadly, USDA should have acted more quickly to warn consumers after it was discovered, consumer advocates say.
USDA officials waited 11 days after inspectors discovered E. coli 0157:H7 downstream from a ConAgra plant that regrinds its meat before warning the company and recalling 354,200 pounds of their hamburger.
Another 19 days went by and a dozen illnesses were reported before the agency widened the recall to 19 million pounds produced between April 12 and July 11.
As early as February, USDA officials had ignored urgings from its own field inspectors to investigate ConAgra's Greeley, Colo., plant, after it was strongly suspected of supplying E. coli-positive meat to Montana Quality Foods & Processing, another meat processor.
After the meat tested positive, inspections officials refused to test other unopened packages that Montana owner John Munsell thought might help pinpoint the source of the contamination. The USDA continued testing Munsell's plant and after three consecutive positive tests, inspectors then asked for a sample from the original lot that tested positive. By that time, Munsell said he had sold all of the product.
And without the sample, inspection officials said the investigation wasn't justified. Munsell then took the matter to U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who in May - long before July's epidemic - met with USDA's Undersecretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano on the matter.
But still the agency took no action.
The USDA's unwillingness to move against companies was also apparent to congressional investigators studying USDA's meat-inspection program. In a report expected to be published by the General Accounting Office this fall, USDA inspectors informed 60 plants involved in 68 enforcement cases last year that they would have to stop meat production because of food safety violations. However in 95 percent of the cases they did not follow through on the warnings.
Murano acknowledged that since taking office last year she has found some of the same "weaknesses" that GAO investigators found and is working to correct them. The agency is providing further training for the inspectors already stationed in plants, she said. Murano also has appointed a new deputy for field operations to crack down on incomplete or inaccurate record-keeping by inspectors.
And as of the ConAgra recall, USDA has changed its policy to immediately inform plants and their customers when illness-causing bacteria is discovered.
Others in the industry are speculating that the sweeping ConAgra recall could also lead to a broader test-and-hold policy at meat plants, where a day's production of meat would be held until the results of bacterial sampling come back.