Listeria: How the food industry gets away with murder

Be sure to check out the latest report from the Consumer Federation of America: “Not ‘Ready to Eat’: How the Meat and Poultry Industry Weakened Efforts to Reduce Listeria Food-Poisoning.” It’s the harrowing story of the Bush administration reversing course from the Clinton administration and weakening efforts to protect the public from Listeria, a deadly foodborne pathogen, in order to serve its friends in the food industry. “Listeria poisoning results in the highest rate of hospitalization of any foodborne pathogen, and the second-highest fatality rate (i.e., twenty percent of Listeria victims die),” the report explains. “Moreover, this pathogen is particularly deadly to a fetus: a pregnant woman who contracts Listeria food-poisoning will almost always suffer miscarriage or stillbirth or bear a child with severe disabilities. The costs of acute illness from foodborne Listeria poisoning alone are estimated to be $2.3 billion per year.” The Clinton administration began the process of crafting a regulation to protect the public from Listeria: In the proposed rule, USDA said it intended to establish pathogen-reduction “performance standards” for all ready-to-eat products and, under some circumstances, require final-product testing for Listeria to ensure that the standards were being met. A performance standard generally limits the amount of a particular pathogen in the final product. The proposed rule spelled out in detail the Clinton Administration’s view that performance standards were vital to protecting the public from Listeria in processed meat and poultry products. Under the proposal, establishments producing ready-to-eat meat and poultry products also would have been required to test food-contact surfaces to verify that they are controlling Listeria within the entire processing environment. If an establishment found contamination on one of its food-contact surfaces, it would have to take corrective action to demonstrate that its product was not adulterated with Listeria. The government changed its position radically when George W. Bush was elected. The new administration position basically abandoned the idea of holding food industry companies to a clear performance standard, instead weakening the rule to give the food business more “flexibility” in Listeria controls and allowing the government less authority to enforce protections of the public. Why the radical change? To benefit the big food corporations like Pilgrim’s Pride, which supported the Bush/Cheney campaign and other GOP campaigns. The food industry’s own executives were appointed to key positions in the government agencies that are supposed to protect the public from the industry’s excesses, and those former executives may have had secret meetings with current executives: USDA’s top food-safety officials have chosen to conceal just how much access industry officials had to them during the formulation of the Listeria rule. They have refused to release the public calendars detailing their meetings held over the past four years with industry groups that were advocating a change in USDA’s approach to reducing illness from Listeria. By contrast, officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – as well as at other agencies --publish their calendars on their agency’s website each week so that the public can be informed about who is seeking to influence policy. In fact, the decision to withhold public calendars is inconsistent with the practice of other USDA officials who have released their calendars in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. Get more information here.
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