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USDA Criticized Over Bacteria Testing

Consumer advocates says the department has been slow to implement measures to protect meat against listeria.

October 15, 2002|Melinda Fulmer | Times Staff Writer

A day after the launch of the largest meat recall in the nation's history, consumer advocates Monday accused the U.S. Department of Agriculture of foot-dragging for failing to adopt testing that could detect bacterial contamination at processing plants.

Sunday's expanded recall pulled 27.4 million pounds of ready-to-eat fresh and frozen turkey and chicken from stores and restaurants, after the Pilgrim's Pride Corp. plant in Pennsylvania that processed the meat was found to be contaminated with listeria monocytogenes bacteria.

Little of the recalled meat appears to have wound up in Southern California supermarkets. Ralphs, Albertson's and Vons stores in California did not stock the affected products.

The USDA requires routine testing at meat-processing plants for salmonella and E. coli bacteria but not listeria. Listeria, which is common in water and soil, can be tracked into processing plants by workers and can live in drains and on surfaces for long periods, food safety experts say.

Regulations for testing for listeria were proposed by the USDA a year ago but have not been implemented. The rules would require routine testing for the bacteria, followed by testing of products if contamination is found.

Without a stricter testing regimen at plants and other procedures to limit consumer exposure, food safety advocates say, illnesses from the bacteria could rise, given the popularity of precooked foods and the spread of listeria in the environment.

"There needs to be a system of ongoing testing in plants that produce ready-to-eat products," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Without testing, she said, processors can't protect against listeria, "and it can live in plants a long time."

Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection System, said he did not know when the proposed rules would take effect. But, he said, testing is no assurance against listeria outbreaks.

Proper plant cleaning and food handling procedures are more crucial, Cohen said, and more assembly-line inspectors are being trained to spot problems under a government plan.

There have been three large recalls in the last four years related to listeria contamination. A recent listeria outbreak in the Northeast caused at least seven deaths, 46 illnesses and three miscarriages.

The USDA discovered listeria bacteria at the Pilgrim's Pride plant when it was investigating the outbreak.

The bacteria were found first in turkey salami, which led last week to a recall of one day's production. Later inspections identified the bacteria in other places within the plant, prompting Sunday's recall.

So far, no illnesses have been linked to products from the Pilgrim's Pride plant, although turkey cold cuts are a suspected cause.

The bacteria do not pose a significant health risk to most people, but can prove deadly for the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. Listeriosis has killed a greater percentage of those sickened than have E. coli bacteria, health officials say.

About 500 people die in the U.S. each year from listeriosis, and most are sickened by eating deli meat, hot dogs, smoked salmon and unpasteurized soft cheeses containing the listeria bacteria.

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