Hello, I'm Mark Pearson. In the wake of a multi-state E. coli outbreak blamed for sickening more than two dozen people, government officials acknowledged this week they knew that millions of pounds of ground beef COULD have been contaminated but waited 18 days before seeking a recall.
The recall that began September 25th quickly expanded to 21.7 million pounds of hamburger processed by New Jersey-based Topps Meat Company. Thirty people in eight states have tested positive for E. coli matching the strain found in the recalled patties.
The Agriculture Department raised a few eyebrows this week when officials said they knew as early as September 7th that preliminary tests MAY have indicated the presence of E. coli. USDA says it was impossible to seek a recall without conducting more sophisticated tests to confirm the original results. Still, officials say in the future they will expedite warnings about contaminated meat.
Topps went out of business on Friday, though several individual and class action lawsuits are pending on the matter. One thing is certain, however, the sickening of dozens and the second largest meat recall in U.S. history isn't exactly instilling confidence in the nation's food supply.
That lack of confidence brought out consumer advocates this week in Washington, to criticize a part of the House-passed farm bill that would change the rules governing federal meat inspections.
Carol Tucker Forman, Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute:"The provisions in the House bill would permit up to 80 percent of all federally inspected plants to opt out of federal safety standards and enforcement and choose instead to be inspected by their home state."
Critics like Carol Tucker Foreman, say state inspections are not uniform and often are less stringent than USDA standards. She added, if tainted meat accidentally entered the marketplace, individual states have no authority to issue or implement a product recall.
Supporters of the House –passed version of the farm bill -- including Minnesota democrat and House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson – say the measure would allow smaller, state-inspected meat processors to compete in the marketplace. Currently state-only inspections restrict meat and poultry sales to within a state's borders. The House version of the bill would allow state-inspected meat to be shipped across state lines, if the guidelines are identical to the federal inspection regulations.
Carol Tucker Foreman, Consumer Federation of America: "I hope that congress doesn't think marketing is more important than public health."
Consumer allies on this issue in the Congress include Senator Barbara Boxer, a democrat from the nation's largest food producing state – California.
Barbara Boxer, D-California: "Allowing uneven and lax state standards to replace a uniform federal standard is not only inappropriate. It is irresponsible. I will continue to work with my colleagues in congress to oppose such language in the senate's version of, of the farm bill. It is a matter of life and death."
Meanwhile, Senate Agriculture committee chair, Tom Harkin announced he will mandate a Presidential Commission on food safety in the Senate version of the farm bill. Such a commission was created in the 2002 farm bill, but never got off the ground.