CFA's Carol Tucker Foreman on Listeria Recall: 120 Illnesses, 13 Deaths Might Have Been Avoided if USDA Had Issued Testing Regulation

October 13, 2002
Art Jaeger, 202-387-6121

"The October 12 recall of 27.4 million pounds of fresh and process turkey and chicken by Wampler Foods comes too late for the unsuspecting Americans who were poisoned by Listeria monocytogenes in food this summer.

"More than 120 people in seven northeastern states became ill with listeriosis and 13 died after contracting the disease. Industry and the Agriculture Department argue that the victims got sick because they didn't act responsibly. In fact, the illnesses are the result of inexcusable dereliction of duty by the government agency charged with assuring meat safety.

"The Bush Administration has stopped new regulations that require companies to test their products for Listeria monocytogenes and permits meat and poultry companies to mislabel their products 'ready-to-eat,' assuring that more people will fall victim to this virulent pathogen, which kills 20 percent of those it infects.

Failure to Act on Proposed Listeria Monocytogenes Rule

"At the urging of industry, the Bush Administration's Agriculture Department has refused to take final action on proposed regulations that would require companies to act effectively to prevent Listeria contamination. The proposed rule on controlling Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat products was completed at the end of the Clinton Administration, held up and then released by the Bush Administration. But the comment period on the proposed regulation ended in May 2001 and no further action has been taken.

"Although the Food and Drug Administration and USDA have completed one risk assessment for Listeria, the Agriculture Department has indicated it intends to perform another one. This means another three to five years before industry is required to show it can control Listeria monocytogenes, another three to five years of unacceptable threats to the health of pregnant women and senior citizens. It is a strange policy for an Administration that claims it is committed to protecting these same groups.

Failure to End Mislabeling of Certain Meat and Poultry Products

"Many of the meat and poultry products that cause Listeriosis are mislabeled. They state the products are 'cooked,' and 'ready-to-eat.' If you are pregnant or immune suppressed they are not 'ready-to-eat,' but must be reheated. "USDA should prohibit companies from misleading consumers. The Department should take the following steps:

  • "Declare that the phrases 'cooked,' and 'ready-to-eat' on hot dogs, lunch meats, cold cuts, fermented and dry sausage and other deli-style meat and poultry products is misleading and require that the phrases be replaced with directions to cook the products thoroughly before eating.
  • "If that is not possible, USDA should require that the labels of these products include information that balances the current promise of safety. The products should be labeled: 'Warning! If you are pregnant or immune suppressed, do not eat this product before reheating it until steaming hot. If you cannot reheat them, do not eat them.'

"The Agriculture Department currently offers these cautions on its meat and poultry hotline and, ironically, in press releases announcing recalls of contaminated products. Consumers need this information clearly and plainly available when they open the package. Package labels are the way to do that."

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Carol Tucker Foreman is director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. CFA is an association of approximately 300 pro-consumer groups formed in 1968 to advance the consumer interest though advocacy and education.