WASHINGTON -- The Agriculture Department could have prevented a listeria outbreak and a recall of 27 million pounds of poultry meats if agency rules required companies to test for the bacteria, consumer groups say.
More than 120 people were sickened and 20 people died in a listeria outbreak in northeastern states. Inspectors discovered a separate strain of the bacteria while investigating the illnesses, prompting the Texas-based Pilgrim's Pride Corp. to recall 27 million pounds of Wampler Foods' turkey and chicken products nationwide on Saturday. It was the largest meat recall ever.
The recalled meat has not been linked to the listeria outbreak, but genetic tests showed it was contaminated with another strain of the pathogen. Listeria can cause severe illness, death and stillbirths.
The government should require such tests as a matter of course, a leading food-safety activist said.
"I think there's a good possibility if that rule had been in effect, we wouldn't have this recall," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute. The institute represents more than 285 consumer advocacy groups.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service began writing a listeria testing standard during the Clinton administration, but the agency has yet to approve it. The Bush administration put the proposal on hold in January 2001 and opened it for public comment until May 2001.
Nothing has happened since then, Tucker Foreman said.
The Agriculture Department has considered assessing the risks of listeria infection, but an evaluation only delays the rule's approval, she said. "If that's your standard, you never act," Tucker Foreman said.
USDA spokesman Steven Cohen disagreed that stricter inspection standards would prevent such episodes as the Wampler Foods recall. He said the department has investigated the multistate listeria outbreak carefully, as well as the plant that issued the recall.
"I think it's disingenuous to suggest that if we had different regulation," the outbreak and recall could have been avoided, Cohen said.
Many companies, including Wampler Foods, do their own testing, he noted.
"Requiring companies to do their own environmental testing really wouldn't have had impact on this situation," Cohen said.
Meat processors have systems in place to prevent listeria and other foodborne illnesses, such as reheating products after they have been packaged and sealed, and by zapping pathogens from meat through irradiation, said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the industry group, the American Meat Institute.
Meat cannot be made bacteria-free just by approving tougher requirements, he said.
"Clearly, a standard on paper will not solve a problem simply because it exists," Boyle said.
Tucker Foreman also criticized "ready to eat" and "cooked" labels on precooked foods as misleading to consumers.
Even though those products carry warnings that urge pregnant women and people prone to illness to reheat them, consumers probably don't do so because they believe precooked meat is safe to eat, she said. Such labels should not be allowed, Tucker Foreman said.
Listeria contamination can occur in refrigerated foods, such as dairy products and deli meats. The bacteria causes 2,300 hospitalizations and 500 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 20 percent of people infected with the disease die. Pregnant women are about 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to contract the illness.
The Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration require companies to issue recalls if inspectors find any trace of the pathogen in food.
Inspectors are continuing to investigate the listeria outbreak that sickened people in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
On the Net: USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/index.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov
Consumer Federation of America: http://www.consumerfed.org/
American Meat Institute: http://www.meatami.com/