WASHINGTON -- Some of the 27 million pounds of meat linked to a listeria outbreak ended up in the federal lunch program, the Agriculture Department said Thursday.
The department purchased nearly 1.8 million pounds of Wampler Foods' turkey meat for distribution to schools and other agencies. Wampler is recalling its ready-to-eat chicken and turkey meats produced since May because its plant tested positive for listeria.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said in a statement that the agency is investigating where the recalled meat was distributed.
"Our top priority at USDA is the protection of public health and we must continue to ensure strong prevention and enforcement programs are in place to best protect consumers," Veneman said.
No illnesses have been reported by schools, but activists and watchdog groups were angry when they learned the meat was in the lunch program.
Food safety officials should have checked to see if the meat was delivered to schools as soon as they knew the meat contained listeria, said Donna Rosenbaum, spokeswoman for Safe Tables Our Priority.
Listeria is a bacterium that can cause severe illness or death. Children are among the people most vulnerable to the infection.
Parents trust schools to serve their children food that has been USDA-inspected and is safe to eat, Rosenbaum said at a news conference.
The agency should announce which schools are affected, she said.
"To not have that information going out to the states, I think, is almost criminal," Rosenbaum said.
Alisa Harrison, a department spokeswoman, said schools are notified any time recalls are issued.
But Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, said too much time went by before the USDA said the meat had been delivered to schools.
"They have known for at least two weeks," said Foreman. "Elementary students are in the vulnerable populations for listeria illness. Why keep that a secret? Why didn't they tell the public?"
Felicia Nestor of the Government Accountability Project, a group that helps government whistle-blowers, released copies of e-mails sent by an anonymous federal inspector at Wampler Foods to the organization.
The inspector said USDA officials told the inspection team they could no longer touch the carcasses of the birds when checking them for abnormalities that could indicate they were contaminated.
In another e-mail, the anonymous inspector noted that salmonella tests at the plant had stopped months ago. Listeria was prevalent "in the chiller at our plant," the inspector wrote.
Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said he had "doubts about the veracity of this statement." He said inspectors test for salmonella and listeria at random and record their results.
"If somebody wasn't doing that, it would show up right away," Cohen said.
Safe Tables Our Priority has sent President Bush a letter demanding his administration require companies to test for listeria. Consumer groups say such a regulation could have prevented the listeria outbreak that was linked this year to 39 illnesses, seven deaths and three stillbirths in the Northeast.
Such a rule was drafted during the Clinton administration but was never approved. Agriculture Department officials have said the rule wouldn't have prevented the outbreak and massive recall, since Wampler Foods does its own testing.
Veneman said the USDA is doing a risk assessment for its listeria program and strengthening testing requirements. The department is also increasing food safety funding and adding inspectors, she said.
She directed food safety officials to revise the current testing protocol and increase the number of samples taken and tested at each plant.
Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, sent a letter Thursday to Veneman, urging her to adopt the drafted rule immediately and toughen safety regulations.
"The recent listeria outbreak associated with ready-to-eat products produced by Pilgrim's Pride points to the need for bolstering U.S. actions to protect consumers from contaminated meat and poultry products," wrote Harkin, D-Iowa.
On the Net
Food Safety and Inspection Service: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/
Government Accountability Project: http://www.whistleblower.org
Safe Tables Our Priority: http://www.safetables.org/
Consumer Federation Food Policy Institute: http://www.consumerfed.org/backpage/fpi....