The advocacy groups Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project reviewed USDA records from 1998 to 2001 and discovered some of the largest ground beef plants in the country repeatedly flunked salmonella tests, yet were not prohibited from stamping their beef "government-approved" or shipping it to market.
"This is a very serious matter (that) cries out for correction," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. "People are getting sick as a result of food they ate ... and people are dying."
Hinchey, who serves on the House Appropriation Committee's Subcommittee on Agriculture, was joined by Rep. John Baldacci, D-Maine, also on the subcommittee, in saying they want new legislation to increase USDA's funding and bolster its food inspection authority. Hinchey noted, however, that Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told Congress recently USDA does not need additional resources or authority.
"I think there's some question about that," he said. "We're prepared to give them the resources they need."
In 1998, USDA instituted a new system for salmonella testing the department said has lowered contamination in beef. Felicia Nestor, food safety project director at the Government Accountability Project in Seattle, Wash., and author of the report, called USDA's action "false advertising."
"There's no evidence that the food supply has become safer (and) American families are paying the price," she said.
The consumer groups found USDA only obeyed sampling requirements 40 percent of the time and some processing plants went years without a single sample being taken. In addition, under USDA protocol, if a sample from a plant tested positive for salmonella, neither the plant nor USDA inspectors were notified and no corrective action was taken until 53 samples were completed, Nestor said. This took years in some cases.
Because of this situation, the groups claimed, meat known to be contaminated with salmonella and possibly other pathogens was allowed to be marketed. During the period analyzed, USDA failed to reject 218 million pounds of potentially contaminated ground beef, they charged.
In perhaps the most publicized case, meat from Excel Corp. of Fort Morgan, Colo., in July 2000 was linked to an outbreak of the bacteria E. coli in Wisconsin that sickened 500 people and led to the death of three-year-old Brianna Kriefall.
Only three samples were collected from the plant between June 1998 and July 2000, the report said. During that time, more than a year passed when no samples were taken.
USDA spokesman Steve Cohen told United Press International it is not unusual to have gaps between testing because meat processing plants may temporarily stop grinding meat, change their procedures or upgrade their plants.
USDA does notify plants if samples repeatedly test positive for salmonella, he added, but the agency does not stop production or ban the meat from market.
Cohen also pointed out the salmonella test is just one component of the USDA's system to detect pathogenic microbes in meat. Other processes and steps are taken to ensure a facility keeps contamination within acceptable levels.
Overall, USDA believes its new testing program is effective. Elisa Murano, USDA undersecretary for food safety, issued a statement saying, "Data collected since 1998 indicate that rates of Salmonella have decreased markedly in all categories of product. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 23 percent drop in bacterial foodborne illness since 1996, confirming (the testing program's) success in preventing foodborne illness."
Cohen said, "We think statistics are going in the right direction. It is not perfect. It is continually being reviewed and updated ... We won't be satisfied until we have no cases."
Patty Lovera, Public Citizen's deputy director of the critical mass energy and environment program, said the microbial testing program "has to be redesigned."
It should include a requirement for daily testing, she said, and plants that process more beef should undergo more tests than smaller ones. Both large and small plants currently are tested at the same rate.
In addition, USDA should test for pathogenic organisms other than salmonella, such as E. coli, and publicly disclose the names of substandard processing plants.
Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project also obtained USDA records for poultry and pork processing facilities and are analyzing them, Lovera told UPI.