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Judge Questions Government’s Ability to Safeguard Food

May 26, 2000
The federal government’s testing program to detect salmonella contamination in ground beef processing plants took a major hit after a judge ruled it does not fairly evaluate whether a plant is sanitary.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Joe Fish threw into doubt the federal government’s ability to safeguard food, officials said.
Fish issued his decision on Thursday after Supreme Beef, a meat processing plant in Dallas, objected to the government’s guidelines. The federal program was designed to ensure that raw ground beef is safe for consumers.
The Department of Agriculture closed the Dallas plant because it failed a salmonella contamination test three times.

Judge: USDA Went Too Far

But in his 15-page decision, Fish agreed with the company that those tests “did not necessarily measure the actual conditions of that plant.”
“Because the USDA performance standards and salmonella tests do not necessarily evaluate the conditions of a meat processor’s establishment, they cannot serve as the basis for finding a plant’s meat adulterated,” the judge ruled.
“Indeed, a plant could, in theory, be completely sanitized from top to bottom, but if the meat in it tests positive for salmonella, the USDA could withdraw its inspectors, effectively closing a plant that is sanitary,” he added.
Moreover, the court said Supreme Beef can continue selling its ground beef all across the nation without meeting the government’s salmonella standards. Salmonella kills an estimated 550 people and causes 1.4 million illnesses annually in the United States.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the court ruling threatened the entire meat inspection system and could turn back years of progress in food safety.
“I think the ruling is wrong and I think it represents a serious threat to what we’re trying to do at modernizing the food safety system in this country,” Glickman said.
The USDA revamped its food safety program four years ago to use more scientific testing and checkpoints to monitor meat and poultry. After Thursday’s ruling, the Clinton administration vowed to appeal.

Is the Public at Risk?

Supreme Beef, a supplier of meat to the federal school lunch program, said the rules were arbitrary.
“This case was not really about food safety, but about a bad policy,” said Steven Spiritas, president of the privately owned company. “Except for our concerns about USDA’s improper enforcement policy, we have strongly supported the new government food safety inspection program.”
The Supreme Beef plant produces about 500,000 pounds of ground beef daily and supplies many customers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Until the court battle began in December, the company also was a major supplier of beef to the federally subsidized school lunch program. The USDA halted purchases of hamburger from the company after it flunked the salmonella tests.
“If Supreme sold meat in this area, I would buy it and cook it tomorrow for the dinner I am cooking for a family of seven,” said Rosemary Mucklow, a spokeswoman for the National Meat Association.
Meat producers have long contended the government’s salmonella tests are inconsistent and inconclusive.
But with Supreme Beef now free to sell its meat to grocery stores and the government school lunch program, consumer groups say the public is at risk.
“Consumers may get more contaminated ground beef this summer because of this ruling,” said Caroline Smith DeWall, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Supreme Beef claims no one has ever fallen ill from its meat in the 30 years it has been in business but Glickman says he will do what it takes to force the company to meet the government standards once again.

ABCNEWS Mike Von Fremd and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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