Latest Food Recall Illustrates Need for Strong Public Safeguards and Equipped, Responsive Agencies

by Katie Greenhaw, 8/8/2011

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced the recall of approximately 36 million pounds of ground turkey products that may be contaminated with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella Heidelberg. This latest recall, one of the largest in U.S. history, should remind us why we need able government agencies to help identify, respond to, and prevent threats to public health.

Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation issued a Class I voluntary recall of ground turkey products produced at its Springdale, Arkansas facility from Feb. 20- Aug. 2, 2011. A Class I recall, the most serious category, is defined as a "health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death."

The voluntary recall came days after the FSIS released a July 29 public health alert for frozen or fresh ground turkey products. While The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates 80 percent of the food Americans eat, including produce and cheese, the FSIS within the USDA regulates meat and poultry products. FSIS is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), on the investigation. Through agency investigations and internal findings at the plant, FSIS identified a link between the Cargill ground turkey products and the outbreak. However, some consumer safety groups have scrutinized the agency’s response, saying the public could have been notified sooner.

The recall is "just the latest example of why we need strong regulatory and public health programs in place to protect consumers," said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of the public interest group Food & Water Watch. "As Congress gets ready to debate funding for federal agencies, this recall is a timely reminder of how vital public health programs like meat and poultry inspection and foodborne illness surveillance are to all of us," she concluded.

A total of 79 persons infected with the outbreak strain have been reported from 26 states between Mar.1 and Aug. 3, 2011. Hospitalizations and one death have been reported. Cargill says it has suspended production of ground turkey products at the processing facility until it is able to determine the source of the salmonella and take corrective actions. The CDC estimates that 50 million Americans get sick from food poisoning annually, and about 3,000 of those illnesses result in death.

If we want to improve the response to outbreaks, or better yet, prevent dangerous contamination altogether, we must ensure that the FDA and USDA receive adequate resources and cooperation. These agencies must be able to perform the inspections and investigations necessary to identify threats to food safety and rapidly respond to outbreaks. This requires staff, funding, and cooperation between agencies and food manufacturers.

Rep. DeLauro (CT-D) issued a statement on the recall criticizing House Republicans for passing in June a 2012 appropriations bill that would cut funding for FDA and USDA. "[T]he House majority has slashed funding for the FDA and USDA, choosing to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy over investing in and improving our food safety system," she said. By cutting funding for these agencies, "we have limited their effectiveness and asked FDA and USDA to do more with less, and the impact of these cuts is starkly clear with this most recent recall."

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