Senators Support Giving USDA 'Teeth' to Defend Food Safety

In recent Senate testimony, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who introduced the bill, said the decision of the court "seriously undermines the strong food safety improvements adopted by USDA" in its extended 1996 rules of safety and sanitation. Harkin said that because of that decision and another in 2003, a similar case that the USDA settled rather than risk losing again, "there is nothing USDA could do to shut down a meat grinding plant that insists on using low-quality, potentially contaminated trimmings."'

The Meat and Poultry Pathogen and Reduction Act stems from a 2001 court case, Supreme Beef v. USDA, in which the beef processor sued the USDA after the government threatened to withdraw federal inspectors from the plant, which would essentially close it. The Texas-based Supreme Beef Processors, Inc., had failed the USDA's salmonella tests three times in less than a year, but claimed in the suit that by law, the USDA could not shut down the plant. Once a district court ruled in favor of the beef processor, the USDA appealed.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the USDA acted outside its regulatory authority, noting, "the performance standard, of itself, cannot serve as a proxy for cross-contamination," with other pathogens, and that "salmonella itself does not render a product 'injurious to health.'"

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) told the Senate that the bill is referred to as "Kevin's Law" because of one of his constituents, Barbara Kowalcyk of Mount Horeb lost her son to an E. coli infection. He said Kowalcyk realizes that "we have technology and understanding to improve the safety of America's meat and poultry, and it's high time that we do it."


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