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Consumer group pushes food safety law

February 4, 1998
Web posted at: 11:25 p.m. EST (0425 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A consumer group is launching a grassroots campaign in support of giving the U.S. Agriculture Department the authority to recall tainted meat.

Following a massive recall of beef linked to E. coli contamination, the bill was introduced last October by Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

"Today, a food safety outbreak can be tantamount to a plague," Harkin said. "With our system of rapid and widespread food distribution, unlike what we had just a few years ago, a vast number of people may be at risk in any given episode."

vxtreme CNN's Eugenia Halsey reports

Harkin's legislation has gained little support in the Senate Agriculture Committee because of opposition from the meat industry. Industry groups have attacked the bill, saying it is unnecessary because of the Department of Agriculture's existing powers and its ability to alert the public to any meat or poultry suspected of contamination.

"The government needs to focus more on research, on food safety, on detection methods, on determining the origins of food-borne illness...,"" said Brian Folkerts, a spokesman for the National Food Processors Association.

Consumer activists say the legislation -- which is pushed by the Clinton administration -- should be approved because federal authorities must now rely on companies to voluntarily recall tainted food.

Last August, Hudson Foods voluntarily recalled a record 25 million pounds of hamburger at the Agriculture Department's urging after several consumers became sick after eating the meat.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest says it hopes to deluge Senate Agriculture Committee members with electronic messages, letters and telephone calls from the public in support of the law giving the USDA recall authority over meat and poultry plants.

The measure also would allow the Agriculture Department to assess civil penalties against violators. Currently, the USDA can pull federal inspectors from plants suspected of producing tainted meat, effectively closing the plant. But the department can only encourage the company to order a recall.

"These are such common-sense protections," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, a spokeswoman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The death of a child or a parent is always devastating, but losing them because of sloppy practices in a food plant or on a farm is unacceptable."

Senate Agriculture committee Chairman Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, has said he opposed the legislation but remains open to forming a consensus bill of some type to address food safety issues.

Harkin said he remains optimistic that the legislation will be adopted before Congress recesses for the November elections.

"I believe we will get bipartisan support for enhanced food safety legislation this year," he said. "What we're asking for is really very, very modest."

The consumer activist group is also lobbying for a separate bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to order mandatory recalls of contaminated seafood, eggs, fruits and vegetables. A third piece of legislation would create a new federal food safety agency to replace the units of the USDA, FDA, Centers for the Disease Control and other departments with some food safety jurisdiction.

Neither of those two measures is viewed as having enough support to win approval this session, said congressional aides.

The White House also has asked Congress for an additional $101 million in fiscal 1999 to hire more food inspectors and expand research into the bacteria that cause food-borne illness.

Although the U.S. food supply is widely acknowledged as the safest in the world, the government says about 9,000 Americans die each year from food-borne illnesses. Food contaminated with E. coli, salmonella and other bacteria also cause an estimated $300 million in economic losses every year.

Correspondent Eugenia Halsey and Reuters contributed to this report.


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