USDA food official: Agency has all authority it needs

Undersecretary cites recent recalls by meat packers and retail grocers as progress in enforcement system.

A top Agriculture Department official told the House Agriculture Livestock Subcommittee Wednesday that the agency has enough tools to ensure food safety compliance and will not need legislation to mandate recalls of tainted beef.

USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond repeatedly rejected the notion that he lacks the authority to crack down on slaughterhouses and meat-packing houses in outbreaks of E. coli and other contaminants that endanger consumers.

The subcommittee grilled Raymond, a physician by training, on a steep increase this year in the incidence of E. coli, chiefly in beef products, that has sickened people around the country.

"This is an issue that affects every state and every [congressional] district," said Livestock Subcommittee Chairman Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa.

Livestock Subcommittee ranking member Robin Hayes, R-N.C., asked whether food safety officials wanted a legislative mandate to order recalls more quickly.

"We think our present system works well," Raymond replied, later noting that meat processors have unfailingly cooperated with USDA in recalling contaminated products. He acknowledged he was deeply concerned about the rise in illnesses from food-borne contaminants but insisted that he had stepped up his agency's inspection and testing regime to combat the problem.

Recent recalls by the packers and retail grocers, he said, demonstrated that the enforcement system is working well and, where it might fail, he will recommend tougher regulations.

He has ordered an increase in the frequency of USDA testing for contaminants, Raymond said, but maintained that "we need to take additional time to strengthen our system and our data collection capabilities before moving forward with [a new] risk-based inspection [approach in the meat-processing system]."

The hearing mostly focused on one of this year's more notorious cases: the contamination from a rare strain of E. coli that spread clusters of illness from Florida to New York. It took the food safety agency about four weeks from the first reported incident of illness to trace the origin of the contaminated beef to the Topps Meat Co., which issued its recall of 331,582 pounds of frozen ground beef products.

Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., lamented the "high number of recalls and illnesses related to food-borne pathogens this year. ... We have seen close to 20 recalls related to E. coli in beef in 2007, with seven recalls in the last 30 days alone. To put that in perspective, there were eight recalls for all of 2006."

Raymond acknowledged the upward swing in illnesses and recalls and pledged "to do more to strengthen our policies and programs. Public health is a lot like riding a bicycle. If we're not moving forward, then we're falling down, and in public health there is no such thing as training wheels."