March 21, 2002
Senate Democrats press for legal
authority to require food companies to recall tainted products
Senate Democrats pressed the Bush administration to seek the legal authority
to require food companies to recall tainted products, a power the industry
doesn't want the government to have.
``I want the administration to ask for these tools,'' Sen. Richard Durbin,
D-Ill., told Agriculture Department officials Wednesday.
The Clinton administration asked Congress for mandatory recall authority but
couldn't get lawmakers to grant it because of opposition from the food
industry. Last fall's anthrax attacks raised new concerns in Congress about
whether the government had the power it needed to protect the food supply
Elsa Murano, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food safety,
said food companies are good about recalling contaminated products without
being forced to do so.
There has only been one case where a company initially refused to issue a
recall, and the firm eventually did so anyway after USDA moved to seize the
food, she said.
``So far, our history has been that our voluntary recall system works,'' she
But Murano said that ``there wouldn't be any downside'' to the government
having the authority to require recalls.
``We only need one (case of contaminated product) to produce a
catastrophe,'' said Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., chairman of the Senate
agricultural appropriations subcommittee.
A 2000 report by the General Accounting Office cited two cases where the
Agriculture Department was slow or indecisive in pushing a company to issue
a recall: The 1997 outbreak of E. coli poisonings linked to a Hudson Foods
plant in Nebraska, and a 1998 listeria outbreak traced to a Bil Mar Foods
plant in Michigan.
Last year, the department recorded 86 recalls of meat and poultry products
around the country and about 30 percent of those were initiated by the
company, Murano said.
Recalls for other products are handled through the Food and Drug
On another matter, Murano told the subcommittee that USDA is inspecting all
Mexican meat that enters the country because of safety concerns about the
plants where it is processed. The border inspections were started after
visits to the plants last fall by Agriculture Department inspectors.
Inspectors will return to the plants in April, she said. Because of the
problems they have been finding, the department is considering leaving
inspectors in Mexico for up to a year at a time.
The United States buys a very small amount of meat from Mexico, about 0.4
percent of total meat and poultry imports, or $12 million a year.
One plant has been barred from shipping meat to the United States since May
1999, she said.