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When it comes to food safety, who’s watching the watchdogs?

December 7, 2004
CONTACT: Michael Hansen (914)
378-2452; Rafael Ayuso (512) 477-4431, ext. 114
Initiative and website will focus on strengthening government oversight at FDA and USDA, making recalls mandatory
YONKERS, N.Y. – Providing consumers with timely information about food safety risks and giving them the tools to take action to effect change is the goal of www.NotInMyFood.org, a project and accompanying website launched today by Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.
“To an alarming degree, the federal agencies that are supposed to be our watchdogs bow to the pressures of the food industry, even when the end results clearly endanger public health,” said Reggie James, director of www.NotInMyFood.org.
In light of a mad cow scare in November – in which an animal tested positive for infection twice before being cleared in a third test – and the confirmed case earlier last December in the state of Washington, James said it is urgent for the Food and Drug Administration to act to keep the disease agent out of animal feed and for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to test more cows annually.
As part of the new campaign, Consumer Reports is making an investigative report titled “You are what they eat,” available in the free portion of its web site. The report raises concerns that the federal government isn’t doing enough to protect the feed supply in the U.S. According to the article, regulatory loopholes are leaving consumers vulnerable to pathogens, drugs and contaminants consumed by the animals they eat.
Consumers Union is proposing a 4-point action plan to make beef safer for American consumers:

  • Provide USDA and the FDA with the power to order mandatory recalls of contaminated food products, rather than voluntary recalls.
  • End secrecy agreements between USDA and individual states that keep the public in the dark about recalled beef.
  • Promptly enact rules prohibiting materials that may transmit mad cow disease.
  • Increase the number of cows tested annually by USDA for mad cow disease.

Neither the USDA nor the FDA have the power to order mandatory recalls of contaminated food products other than infant formula, leaving it up to food producers instead to conduct voluntary recalls.
“While government agencies have the authority to recall faulty products ranging from toys to tires and impose penalties if products aren’t pulled off the market, when it comes to our food supply, industry calls the shots,” James said.
Consumers are also kept in the dark about food-borne health risks. Federal regulators refuse to tell state officials about the locations of stores and restaurants that have received potentially contaminated products unless they agree to keep that information secret from the public. Currently, 12 states are reported to have signed such secrecy agreements.
In the wake of the discovery of the first mad cow case in the U.S., the FDA promised in January to make changes in its animal feed rules. But FDA never followed through. FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan initially announced that the agency would ban cow blood and several other materials that pose risks in terms of transmission of mad cow disease in cattle feed. However, the agency never published the regulations in the Federal Register. In July, the FDA said it was considering broader restrictions, thereby postponing any action even further.
“FDA must immediately close loopholes in its rules on animal feed that could allow the disease to spread,” said Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a research biologist at Consumers Union and advisor to the www.NotinMyFood.org project. “The agency has known for a while that cow blood and chicken coop floor waste could be vehicles for transmission of mad cow disease. It should act immediately to prohibit these substances as well as restaurant waste and pig and poultry slaughterhouse waste, in ruminant feed.”
USDA, Hansen noted, is testing less than 1% of the cows slaughtered each year, far less than the percentage tested in Japan and most of Europe. The USDA has tested 113,000 cows since it began a broader test program earlier this year, but more than 35 million cattle are slaughtered for food in the U.S. annually.
Hansen said that while the risk of buying infected meat may be low for any given piece of steak, consumers who want to minimize their risk can:

  • buy organic beef, which is not fed any of the animal byproducts that can carry the infectious prions, and
  • stay away from organ meats — especially brains – as well as beef sausage, hot dogs, and pre-packaged hamburgers, which may combine meat from many cows.

“While testing alone will not fully protect the public, we should be testing all animals over 20 months, said Hansen. “Even animals that test negative can be silent carriers of this infection.”

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Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, is an independent nonprofit testing, educational and information organization serving only the consumer. We are a comprehensive source of unbiased advice about products and services, personal finance, health, nutrition and other consumer concerns. Since 1936, our mission has been to test products, inform the public and protect consumers.