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Witnesses Call For Revamped Federal Food Safety Regulations

Downer cowA hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on Tuesday reviewed a recent scandal over beef safety, which led to a massive recall of 143 million pounds of meat. The hearing raised serious questions about both the ability of the United States Department of Agriculture to keep food-borne pathogens out of the food supply, and the problem of overlapping jurisdiction between the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the USDA. In January, the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video which documented the cruel and illegal handling of sick cows which were immediately butchered; some of the meat was processed for school lunch programs. Federal law prohibits butchering “downer” cows, which are are unable to stand on their legs, for food. The video, produced last fall, showed employees at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in Chino, California circumventing the rule by forcing downer cows to stand and walk into kill boxes.

Humane Society spokesperson Michael Greger, M.D. said in his testimony to the hearing that the documented abuses are actually widespread in the industry. “This was not an aberration, the work of a few rogue employees,” he stated. Meat produced from sick cows, he said, is more likely to contain disease-causing E. coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens.

Referring to a USDA rule introduced in 2007, Greger said companies are taking advantage of a loophole which allows some downer cows to be butchered with the approval of on-site USDA inspectors. A number of Committee members and witnesses at the hearing agreed that the loophole creates a financial incentive to get USDA inspectors to approve downer cows. The video documentary indicated that companies have become adept at manipulating overworked inspectors. To respond to this problem, Greger asked the Committee to mandate a complete ban on the use of downer cows for food.

Greger also said that many current food safety laws and rules were written in the first half of the twentieth century when policy-makers did not have the benefits of current scientific knowledge. Because new food-borne diseases have emerged and become epidemic as recently as the 1980s, Greger recommended that the regulatory system should be revamped to account for state-of-the-art science. He also recommended more funding of epidemiological research to better understand how epidemics of food-borne illnesses emerge.

William Marler, a food safety trial lawyer for the Seattle law firm Marler Clark, also testified about regulatory inadequacies. The problem with the system of food safety regulations, said Marler, is that it depends on a “trifurcated” group of agencies. The FDA, USDA, and CDC fail to share information and “walk all over each other,” he said. The inefficacy of Federal regulations, and the illnesses caused by unsafe food, produce a high demand for civil litigation, which he called “a blunt instrument for change” that an overhauled regulatory system could render unnecessary. “It is time for businesses and consumers to simply make me irrelevant,” he said. He recommended that Congress should merge the USDA, FDA, and CDC; create a local, state, and national surveillance system; and encourage full disclosure and transparency on information pertaining to food recalls.

Image: Humane Society of the United States, via flickr.com/smiteme

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