According to the Centers for Disease Control, 5-thousand Americans die every year from food-borne illnesses. The U-S-D-A says the figure would be higher if it were not for the 7600 employees of the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Those employees are backed up by the 3 year-old Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program, or HACCP. HACCP was a fundamental change in USDA inspection procedures. Instead of the traditional "poke and sniff" method of the early 1900s, inspection is now done with a science-based testing program. But the government's approach has been contested in some quarters.
Texas-based Supreme Beef Processors challenged HACCP in late 1999. The company, which was processing meat for school lunch programs, failed a series of tests for the pathogen salmonella at one of its 5 processing plants. When Supreme Beef was unable to clean up the problem, the USDA pulled its inspectors off the line, effectively closing the plant, and stopped accepting meat for school lunch hamburgers.
Supreme Beef went to court and sued arguing USDA's standards are arbitrary and that the level of salmonella contamination that makes humans ill is unknown. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rendered a decision in favor of Supreme Beef.
On its face, the decision would appear to gut the U-S-D-A's authority, but Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman is undaunted by the decision. She has informed her staff to continue with business as usual. This would include continued testing for salmonella and strict enforcement of HACCP as written.
Anne Veneman, USDA Secretary of Agriculture: "The court ruling basically said that we could not use salmonella testing as a performance test; it does not preclude us from testing for salmonella and using is as an indicator of whether or not we have problems in a plant. And we're gonna continue to do that. We're gonna continue to look at every plant to ensure that its got the HACCP procedures in place, to ensure that we have the safest meat and poultry supply that we possibly could in this country."
The Secretary is also receiving support from the legislative branch. Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, along with fellow Democratic Senators Harkin and Clinton, is planning to introduce legislation that will make clear the extent of the USDA's power.
Senator Richard Durbin, (D) Illinois: "I think it gets down to the heart of the issue. Whether the USDA has the authority to do what the consumers already believe their doing. And that is to make certain that the hamburger that is coming to their table is safe."
Work on the measure is expected to begin with hearings lead by Senator Harkin early next year.