Not enough

October 21, 2002

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT is stumbling toward a better policy on food safety, but it's still falling far short of ideal.

In the wake of the recent listeria outbreak -- marked by a slow and uncoordinated response that culminated in confusing and apparently misleading pronouncements -- the Department of Agriculture has now decided to extend its testing program beyond poultry companies to cover plants that produce ready-to-eat beef and pork.

That's a worthy first step. But just consider what has happened in the listeria outbreak, and the problems that the new policy does not address:

People began falling ill from a particular strain of the bacteria in June. The federal government went into action in August. Two weeks ago, investigators believed they were homing in on the source of the outbreak, and a Pilgrim's Pride plant in Pennsylvania, which up till then had been allowed to "self-test" for pathogens, began a voluntary recall. That's four months before real action was taken.

Finally, on Oct. 13, the USDA confirmed that it had found listeria in a Pilgrim's Pride product, but put the wrong foot forward and emphasized that this was not from the strain that had sickened at least 46 people and killed seven in eight states. That was true, narrowly, but tests confirmed the presence of the suspect strain as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally pointed this out two days later.

What has been learned since then? More than a million pounds of potentially contaminated poultry went to school lunch programs, food banks and homeless shelters. Most of it won't be recalled, because it has already been eaten.

Consider: Even while the CDC and USDA were trying to track down listeria in the Northeast, an E. coli outbreak erupted in the Midwest. On Oct. 3, 2 million pounds of ground beef was recalled -- but that was more than a month after it had appeared in grocery stores. This is not an effective way to protect the public health.

Defenders of the current system point out that American food is safer than it once was. That's small comfort when so much more could be done.

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