Statement of CFA's Carol Tucker Foreman on USDA's Listeria numbers

October 17, 2003
Chris Waldrop, (202) 797-8551

"The Food Safety and Inspection Service October 17 statement claiming major reductions in Listeria monocytogenes positives in testing performed by federal inspectors may be good public relations. We need more information to know whether it reflects an improvement in public health.

"There are several problems with the claims. First, the FSIS data are incomplete. The agency compares results from nine months of testing in 2003 to 12 months of testing for previous years. This is the second time in two months that FSIS has claimed a victory based on incomplete data. Earlier, the agency stated E coli O157:H7 positives had declined and based the report on eight months of testing rather than one year.

Second, the agency has not addressed the very serious assertion that plants are given prior notification of the testing and an opportunity to do a special clean up before the testing is performed. In 2002 a USDA meat inspector assigned to the Pilgrims Pride plant responsible for a 2002 Listeriosis outbreak charged that the Pennsylvania plant was given advance notice and time to do a clean up before being tested.

"A further problem is that the USDA weakened the Listeria rule proposed by the Bush Administration in 2001. It dropped the requirement that regulated plants test meat products for the disease-causing form of Listeria (Listeria monocytogenes) after finding the nonpathogenic form Listeria spp in the plant environment. This provision, dropped at the behest of the meat industry, weakens public health protection. Federal inspectors can perform only a few thousand tests each year. The dropped requirement would have made companies take responsibility for their actions and would concentrate testing where it is clear there is a potential problem.

"The bottom line is that consumers should not assume that meat stamped 'USDA inspected and approved, cooked and ready-to-eat' is safe. It may harbor pathogens that cause serious illness and can kill 20 percent of the people infected. Pregnant women and immune suppressed individuals are especially vulnerable.

"CFA and other consumer groups praised USDA for expanding testing by inspectors. We hope it is having a salutary impact but there is no way to know because the Department of Agriculture continues to play games with testing data. This type of action undermines the credibility of the Bush Administration's claim to a strong commitment to improve food safety."

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Carol Tucker Foreman is the Director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America.