In the wake of the isolated Mad Cow case in Canada earlier this year, the U.S. livestock industry is looking into a beef traceback system.
An early proposal calls for ISO-based numbers to be printed on a tag. The tag would be applied before the animal leaves its herd of origin. Additional information would be added to the tag at each stop on the animal's way to the slaughter plant. There, both the number and tag would be retired.
Under the plan, the government would NOT necessarily be the keeper of the database. Some in the livestock industry say ensuring meat safety is better left in private hands. In the second of a two-part look at the issue, John Nichols explains that already may be the case.
Barbara Kowalcyk: "On August 16th, 2001 we didnÃ‚Â't just bury our son, we also buried a part of ourselves."
Last week, Market to Market introduced viewers to Barbara Kowalcyk, whose 2-year-old son, Kevin died in 2001 after consuming food contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC in Atlanta, every year in the United States, there are approximately 76 million cases of foodborne illness, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.
Contaminated meat is a well-known source of foodborne illness. Currently though, USDA does not have legal authority to mandate recalls or close plants when problems arise.
Sen. Tom Harkin: "These losses and this suffering are simply unacceptable and we must continue to fight to end them."
The ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Tom Harkin is sponsoring legislation that would strengthen the agriculture departmentÃ‚Â's authority to regulate the meat and poultry industries. The Iowa Democrat claims the Kowalcyk family serves as the inspiration for the bill.
Sen. Tom Harkin: "Barbara Kowalcyk and her family's tenacious efforts have led to bipartisan support to enact a meat poultry reduction act which we are calling Kevin's law in honor of her son Kevin Kowalcyk who died of E. coli in 2001. This law would make clear that USDA has the authority to enforce standards for reducing pathogens on meat and poultry products."
In 1993, after a lethal outbreak of E. coli in the Pacific Northwest, the government established a new regulatory system called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or HACCP.
The program shifted responsibility for meat safety away from USDA inspectors to the meat companies, which implemented microbial tests for harmful bacteria.
But, when USDA attempted to flex its regulatory muscle in the late '90s, it's legal authority was challenged.
In 1999, Supreme Beef Processors, a Texas-based operation that at one time supplied millions of pounds of ground beef to the public school system, repeatedly failed USDA tests for Salmonella.
When USDA attempted to pull government inspectors out of the plant, effectively closing it down, Supreme Beef filed suit in Federal District Court challenging USDAÃ‚Â's legal authority to set limits on Salmonella. The court prohibited USDA from pulling its inspectors and ruled that the government does not have the authority to close plants that repeatedly fail tests for Salmonella. Two years later, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling.
Carol Tucker Foreman: "Now the industry likes to say the courts ruled it wasn't scientific. What the courts ruled was that the law written in 1967 didn't give USDA the authority to close down a plant because it failed a salmonella standard."
Carol Tucker Foreman is the head of the Consumer Federation of America. She claims laws giving USDA regulatory authority of the meat industry are antiquated and Congress needs to grant USDA effective power to set and enforce performance standards for the meat industry.
Carol Tucker Foreman: "Our meat inspection laws were written in 1906. They were last revised in 1967. Think about how the food system has changed since 1967. We eat off a global plate today. It's time we had a modern food safety system, not one that was hatched in 1906 and hasn't changed much since then."
Sen. Dick Durbin: "Parents buy food that they are just certain is safe to give to their children and see disastrous consequences..."
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois is a proponent of granting more regulatory authority to USDA.
Sen. Dick Durbin: "To think that we have a situation today where a major meat processor can be found to have violated the law, to have contaminated meat, and the Department of Agriculture does not have the power to close that plant is unthinkable and unacceptable."
Ironically, USDA hasn't exactly been begging for more legal authority. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman claims she is prepared to consider changes, but her undersecretary in charge of food safety, Elsa Murano, is opposed to USDA having more authority.
Elsa Murano, Undersecretary for Food Safety, USDA: "We have the best production practices in the world."
In the wake of last year's record meat recalls, U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut is considering legislation that would force meat companies to inform consumers which stores received possibly tainted meat. Currently, no such mandate exists.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, (D) Connecticut: "Would you support legislation that would allow USDA to tell states if a tainted product has been distributed so that we can inform consumers, make consumers a part of this process? The distributor knows it, the U.S. government knows it, the only folks who are in the dark are the consumers. Yes or no, would you support the legislation?"
Elsa Murano: "I wouldnÃ‚Â't because we already have that legal authority, we just don't utilize it because it takes days for us to reach a subpoena that's going to allow us to get that information."
Murano claims the companies would become less cooperative with the USDA making it harder for the government to track retailers and wholesalers that sold the tainted meat.
Patrick Boyle: "The meat and poultry industry is one of the most intensely regulated sectors of the economy..."
Patrick Boyle is the head of the American Meat Institute, the nation's largest meat and poultry trade association. He claims additional regulatory authority by USDA would do little to ensure greater meat safety.
Patrick Boyle: "In virtually every instance in which I have some familiarity, when the government requests a company to conduct a recall, the company does so voluntarily. We don't think the Department of Agriculture needs additional statutory authority, which frankly would just be punitive when we're so focused as an industry on preventative measures to ensure that these products are as safe and wholesome as they can be."
Eric Schlosser: "I'd like to say that we have the best food safety system in the world, but unfortunately I think we no longer do."
Eric Schlosser is the author of the best-selling book, "Fast Food Nation". The book exposed the meat industry's numerous shortcomings including inadequate commitment to safety for both employees and consumers. Schlosser also is critical of USDA's inability to mandate recalls.
Eric Schlosser: "If there is a happy meal toy that poses a choking hazard, the federal government can order it off the market, but if the ground beef in that happy meal is potentially contaminated and could kill children, the government cannot order it off the market. This is absurd."
For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.