Members of Congress introduced legislation that would restore USDA’s authority to set and enforce standards for salmonella in meat and poultry, including the power to close a processing plant that fails to meet expectations.
"We cannot let a few bullies in the meat and poultry industry place our children and our families at risk of getting ill or dying because they want to backtrack on food safety," said Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, who sponsored the bill, along with his fellow Democrats, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. Reps. Anna G. Eshoo, Democrat of California, and Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut introduced a companion bill in the House.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, sided with a federal court in Texas that had ruled USDA could not close Supreme Beef Processors of Dallas because it had failed three series of tests for salmonella.
The appeals court ruled that salmonella was not subject to regulation because the bacteria are destroyed in normal cooking, and because meat may already be contaminated when it arrives at a processing plant.
In support of the legislation, consumer advocates and victims of foodborne illnesses came to Washington today to protest the weakening of the department's control over meat plants.
Lobbying against the legislation is the American Meat Institute. Here is a statement on the proposal by J. Patrick Boyle, AMI president.
“The U.S. meat and poultry industry believes it's time to stop the political gamesmanship that is dominating food safety policy and commit ourselves to good public policy. Sen. Harkin's bill is a political effort to legislate what science and the judicial system do not support and what Congress has rejected twice before.
“Two courts have ruled that a USDA microbiological testing standard could not be used to determine if a plant was sanitary. The court allowed USDA to continue taking the test, which it is doing. Today that test is used to evaluate the plant in its entirety, but the test alone cannot be used to close the plant because the test is not a measure of sanitation. In fact, using the test to deem a plant unsanitary is like using SAT scores alone to evaluate a student's future potential. The information needs to be used in a larger context, and that is precisely how USDA is now using the Salmonella Performance Standard.
“The U.S. meat and poultry industry urges Congress to await the findings of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, which will make recommendations on this very issue this year. Sen. Harkin's effort to move ahead before these scientific bodies have released their findings calls into question the scientific underpinnings of his legislation and places apolitical spotlight on his effort.”

New York Times, American Meat Institute