Legislation Would Give Feds Power to Force Food Recalls

By Misti Crane, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Jul. 17–The federal agencies

responsible for keeping

the food on your table safe from contaminants including E. coli and salmonella have no authority to force product recalls.

Instead, the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture rely on the good will of slaughterhouse operators, grocery-store executives and others.

However, proposals in both chambers of Congress aim to give the government the power to force recalls. The authors of the bills have asked House and Senate leaders to speed passage in light of recent outbreaks.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat behind the Senate proposal, said he expects wide support and that several public-health bills currently under consideration could provide a vehicle for the change.

Brown pointed out that about 5,000 people die each year from tainted food in the United States.

“We must preserve the integrity of the U.S. food supply,” he said.

The proposal drew quick opposition from the American Meat Institute, the largest beef industry group, representing about 200 packers and processors.

“When companies need to do a recall, they do,” said spokeswoman Janet Riley. “We benefit by executing recalls as fast as we can when they occur.”

Those seeking federal changes, including many food-safety experts, say two recent outbreaks have highlighted gaps in oversight and prompted calls for changes, including mandatory recalls.

The one closest to home began in June with a cluster of central Ohio illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7, a potentially lethal bacteria that live in cow intestines.

In recent weeks, that outbreak has grown to include at least 44 people in five states and prompted Nebraska Beef to recall more than 5 million pounds of meat and Kroger to recall an unknown amount.

The other, a national

salmonella outbreak, has sickened at least 1,167

people since April.

In 10 outbreaks since 2003, 217 Ohio residents were sickened, 66 of whom were hospitalized, and one died, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Private companies aren’t always as quick as they should be in issuing recalls and executives sometimes try to “sweep it under the rug,” Brown said.

“I want to make these companies more responsible.”

FDA officials have said they want recall authority.

The bills follow a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that found that several other countries and the European Union have stricter, stronger food-safety systems.

Mandatory recall authority and the ability to trace food from the farm to the table are key elements in strengthening the system, the accountability office found.

Although the number of recalls appears to be declining, the size of those recalls is growing, according to the office’s report.

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