Food safety: Front and center

by Eric Schroeder
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Urging more immediate access to information regarding recalls and stepped-up government funding for food safety research, representatives of some of the nation’s largest food processors testified at a Capitol Hill hearing Feb. 26 on food safety in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Gary M. Rodkin, chief executive officer of Omaha-based ConAgra Foods, told the House panel he would like to see the government provide access to information earlier on any unsafe products.

"That would help us protect consumers sooner rather than dumping the information on us all at once," he said. Mr. Rodkin was one of several executives to testify at the hearing, titled "Contaminated Food: Private Sector Accountability," the fifth in a series of hearings held during the past year to address safety measures related to domestic and imported food.

Also on hand was David A. DeLorenzo, president and c.e.o. of Dole Food Co., Inc., Westlake Village, Calif., who stressed recalls should not be viewed as an indication of complacency, and urged additional government support for more research into food safety.

"We strongly feel that research is where the lion’s share of any extra resources allocated by Congress should go," Mr. DeLorenzo said. "Please note that we don’t have any objection to spending more federal dollars on inspections and audits. Adding more inspectors to regulatory agencies or giving them mandatory recall authority is a good thing. However, having more inspectors will not get to the root cause of how pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 survive and transfer from one location to another, and it will not address the science needed to develop a true kill step or other prevention."

ConAgra feels the heat

Mr. Rodkin said ConAgra Foods, which came under intense scrutiny during the hearing because of several food safety-related events during the past year, considers food safety a "top priority throughout the company," with a companywide mission of providing consumers with "safe, nutritious and wholesome food."

"Having now been involved in two very different food safety outbreaks, we are more determined than ever to follow through on our commitment to improve our systems companywide to ensure we are producing safe, wholesome, quality products, whether they are ‘ready-to-eat’ or need to be further cooked by consumers," Mr. Rodkin said.

In defending the company’s efforts in food safety, Mr. Rodkin conveyed three messages to the committee. First, he said the company followed through on its commitments made at an earlier hearing regarding steps needed to resume production of its Peter Pan peanut butter at its manufacturing facility in Sylvester, Ga. Second, the company resumed operations producing its Banquet and store brand pot pies after making enhancements to the line, including changes to on-pack cooking instructions. Third, he said ConAgra has undertaken a complete revamping and modernization of its food safety practices companywide, including hiring a new chief global quality officer and establishing a Food Safety Advisory Committee.

Dole c.e.o. calls for more research

Mr. DeLorenzo of Dole was asked to testify about two vegetable-related E. coli recalls that affected Dole in the past two years.

He said the spinach recall transformed the industry from one that approached food safety as a top priority into one that now has a heightened sense of urgency of the need to understand what steps need to be taken to reduce the risk of another outbreak in the future.

Mr. DeLorenzo’s remarks reflected a strong call for government support for more research activities in understanding how pathogens survive and mitigate in the natural environment.

"We cannot inspect our way out of food safety problems any more than we can test our way out of it," he said. "It will continue to take a concerted and significant effort in time and funding and regulation from both the government and private sector, to make our food system — already the safest in the world — even safer."

G.M.A. offers recommendations

On a broader industry scale, Dr. Robert Brackett, senior vice-president and chief science and regulatory affairs officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, urged a focus on programs and policies that will prevent food contamination as food safety legislation is modernized. He identified recommendations that are part of the G.M.A.’s "Commitment to Consumers: the Four Pillars of Imported Food Safety," a comprehensive food safety proposal released last fall.

"By focusing our efforts on prevention, by increasing F.D.A. resources, and by leveraging the expertise and resources of the food industry, we believe Congress can help us meet the challenges posed by rising imports and changing consumer preferences," Dr. Brackett said.


Large beef recall fresh in mind

The hearing came a little more than a week after 143 million lbs of beef were recalled by Chino, Calif.-based Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. The recall — the largest beef recall in U.S. history — comes at a time when the nation has never been more cognizant of the need to improve food safety measures, and stands as the latest significant incident over the past few years calling into question food safety and inspection processes in the United States.

Congressman John D. Dingell of Michigan, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, chastised the companies present at the hearing for, among other things, failure to act swiftly and openly in correcting food safety issues. He was particularly critical of ConAgra’s series of problems, from the outbreak of Salmonella in its Peter Pan peanut butter brand to the contamination of its Banquet brand pot pies. Mr. Dingell also called into question multiple recalls of leafy greens, and expressed disappointment that Steve Mendell, president of Hallmark/Westland Meat Co., turned down an invitation to participate in the hearing.

"It is clear our regulatory system is broken," he said. "I urge industry to provide serious recommendations and, more importantly, strongly support legislation that will ensure food safety. The time has passed for half measures or asking regulators to do more with less. Our health is at stake. If you don’t join us in changing the current system, I can assure you that this will not be the last time you join us in testifying about another recall and another failure in protecting our nation’s food supply."

Another committee member expressing frustration about the food safety system was Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado, vice-chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

"These companies come before us, apologize profusely, then tell us about all the new facilities they are installing or money they are spending to make sure something like this never happens again," she said.

Like Mr. Dingell, Ms. DeGette was especially critical of ConAgra.

"With an organization this large, that touches so many segments of the marketplace, what are they doing companywide to ensure food safety?" Ms. DeGette asked. "Obviously, we may never be able to eliminate risk entirely, but this is happening far too often."


Largest beef recall in history prompts outcry

WASHINGTON — Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., Chino, Calif., on Feb. 17 recalled approximately 143,383,823 lbs of raw and frozen beef products that the Food Safety and Inspection Service determined to be unfit for human food because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection. This is the largest beef recall in history.

All products produced since Feb. 1, 2006, have been recalled.

"U.S.D.A.’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has evidence that Hallmark/Westland did not consistently contact the F.S.I.S. public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with F.S.I.S. regulations," said Secretary of Agriculture Edward Schafer. "Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection, F.S.I.S. has determined them to be unfit for human food and the company is conducting a recall."

Downer cattle at processing plants require an F.S.I.S. veterinarian reassess the non-ambulatory cattle, which are either condemned and prohibited from the food supply, or tagged as suspect. Suspect cattle receive a more thorough inspection after slaughter than is customary. This noncompliant activity occurred occasionally over the past two years and therefore all beef product produced during the period of time for which evidence indicates such activity occurred has been determined by F.S.I.S. to be unfit for human consumption, and is, therefore, adulterated.

Some of the Westland Meat Co. branded products were purchased for federal food and nutrition programs and, since Jan. 30, the U.S.D.A. has had an administrative hold on all products from Westland Meat Co. in all of these outlets, including in the National School Lunch Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Food Assistance Program on Indian Reservations.


Budget proposal seeks more funds for food safety, defense

When President Bush introduced his budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for fiscal 2009 in mid-February, considerable attention was given to food safety and defense. Enhancing the protection and safety of the nation’s agriculture and food supply was identified in the budget as "Strategic Goal 4."

Within that goal, the U.S.D.A. established two key objectives: reducing the incidence of food borne illnesses related to meat, poultry and egg products in the United States; and reducing the number and severity of agricultural pest and disease outbreaks.

The 2009 budget allows for $1,088 million to be dedicated to food safety programs, up from $1,067 million set aside for 2008 and $1,013 million spent in 2007. According to the U.S.D.A., the funds will be used to cover the costs of federal inspection and federal support for state inspection programs, meet Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.) responsibilities under the Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative and support continued development of a stronger, science-based inspection system.

The 2009 budget request includes a $47 million increase to be used toward rapidly detecting and responding to agricultural health threats. That funding will be used to improve plant pest and wildlife disease surveillance, as well as continue National Animal Identification System efforts, the U.S.D.A. said.

The budget proposal also calls for a $9 million increase to be used for Agricultural Research Service efforts to control exotic and emerging diseases of livestock and crops.

The budget proposal includes a request for $277 million as part of the Food and Agriculture Defensive Initiative, an amount that drew praise from Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner in a briefing on the budget held Feb. 4.

"This represents an increase of almost $91 million for U.S.D.A. to continue to strengthen the safety and security of our nation’s food supply for agriculture," Mr. Conner said. "This funding request for the $91 million does include money to safeguard the nation’s food supply for E. coli research to improve animal vaccines and diagnostics tests, money to enhance our activities relative to pest detection, and we also include money for the design of a biocontainment poultry research facility in Athens, Ga., as again, all part of this situation."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, March 4, 2008, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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