By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 1/4/2005 7:11:11 PM ET 2005-01-05T00:11:11

The meat industry's lobbying and close ties to the Bush administration helped prevent more stringent food-safety rules that guard against listeria from being enacted, a consumer group charged Tuesday.

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The Consumer Federation of America claims that lobbying of Department of Agriculture officials by manufacturers of ready-to-eat products like hot dogs and deli meats resulted in a significant weakening of proposed rules intended to keep Americans safe from the potentially deadly bacteria.

"The Bush administration has quietly abandoned the goal of reducing the listeria rate," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the federation's Food Policy Institute and one of the report's authors.

Listeria monocytogenes, a naturally occurring pathogen, can be found in meat, fish and dairy products, as well as refrigerators and storage spaces.

While less well-known than illnesses like salmonella, listeria causes some 2,500 cases of serious illness each year; 20 percent of patients die. Pregnant women, newborns, the elderly and some other specific groups are at highest risk.

The government began checking meat and poultry plants for listeria as early as 1987. Regular tracking of human cases began during the Clinton administration. The government sought to protect consumers by inspecting both finished meat products and the plants that produce them.

The report examined a proposed listeria rule unveiled in the final months before President Clinton left office and resurrected by the USDA in February 2001.

Required tests?
Among other things, the rule called for specific, mandatory standards to test for listeria on the surfaces in processing plants that came into contact with food. Tests were to be conducted from one to four times per month, depending on the plant's size.

These tests would have been a key element of manufacturers' HACCP plans, a set of food safety efforts outlined by each food producer for its own facilities and reviewed by federal inspectors.

But the final rule, which has not yet been enacted, didn't set specific "performance standards" for the plants. Instead, it would allow plants to address listeria controls in basic operation and sanitation plans, rather than through specific anti-pathogen measures.

In both sets of rules, inspections of finished products by federal inspectors would continue, with finished products pulled if any listeria was found. Neither proposal required labeling about listeria risks.

J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, which represents major U.S. meat packers, dismissed Foreman's report, calling it "a bit of political theater."

Boyle defended meat companies' role in reducing listeriosis, noting that the number of listeria recalls dropped from 40 in 2002 to 14 in 2003.

Among the rule changes opposed by industry were broader environmental testing and mandatory testing schedules. The agency agreed, saying mandatory tests "might discourage some establishments" from compliance. Instead, it said "incentives" should be offered to encourage plants to test more regularly.

The new rules also allow companies not to tell inspectors if they discover listeria on premises, according to Foreman. "The listeria rule adopts a don't-look, don't-tell approach,” she said.

'Requires significantly more'
USDA officials denied that the rule had in any way been weakened. The new rule "is far stronger and requires significantly more from industry than the proposed rule," Merle Pierson, acting USDA undersecretary for food safety, said in a statement.

While different products contain different risks, Pierson noted, the initial rule treated all plants the same.

During more than two years between the proposed rule and the revised rule, released last June, the nation witnessed major listeria recalls.

In 2002, two companies — Wampler Foods of Franconia, Pa., and Jack Lambersky Poultry Co. of Camden, N.J. — recalled nearly 30 million pounds of their products. By the end of the recall, at least 53 people had fallen ill from listeriosis, the illness induced by the bacteria. At least seven died.

Investigations subsequently found that the Wampler plant was repeatedly cited by USDA inspectors. The USDA's Office of the Inspector General described similar violations at Lambersky, including "construction dust, meat residue on equipment, and leaking ceilings."

Last year, the OIG criticized the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service for its actions, noting that the Lambersky inspections "did not materially improve" even after the recall.

Foreman underscored ties between President Bush and Lonnie Pilgrim, chairman of Texas-based Pilgrim's Pride, which owns Wampler. Pilgrim is a longtime Bush supporter and one of his campaign's most prominent fundraisers. She also listed several USDA officials who previously held positions with meat industry groups, including Dale Moore, chief of staff to Secretary Ann Veneman.

Citing Moore's public calendar, Foreman described meetings between industry lobbyists, Veneman, Moore and Elsa Murano, the undersecretary for food safety. The USDA denied requests for Murano's calendar, prompting CFA to sue the department.

Its report was partially funded by the Deer Creek Foundation of St. Louis, which donates money to groups supporting environmental and other advocacy issues.

Meat industry officials openly acknowledged they discussed the listeria rules with the USDA. "That is what interested parties have a right to do," Boyle said.

Data difficult to decipher
Despite the 2002 outbreak, the USDA and meat industry have touted widespread progress in reducing listeria risks, hoping to achieve a Clinton administration goal to reduce the incidence of cases to 0.25 per 100,000 people by the end of this year.

The meat industry cites USDA data that shows the incidence of listeria on hot dogs and lunch meats dropping from over 4 percent in 1990 to under 1 percent in 2003, based on samples processed by FSIS inspectors. Inspectors conduct about 10,000 tests nationwide per year, according to USDA spokesman Steven Cohen.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saw a drop in listeria cases between 1998 and 2002, to a low of 0.27 cases per 100,000 people. But the rate jumped again in 2003 to 0.33 per 100,000 people.

The USDA did not say whether it expects to reach the 0.25 goal this year, though industry officials said they believe they will. Cohen noted that no outbreaks tied to meat and poultry were recorded in 2003.

The CDC does not track infection sources, making it difficult to know whether the cause is meat or other foods, such as cheese and processed fish, which the Food and Drug Administration regulates under different rules.

Randy Huffman, vice president of scientific affairs for the AMI Foundation, acknowledged it was too soon to draw long-term conclusions from the CDC data about listeria prevention. "It is not appropriate to make comparisons between years," he said.

Listeria can also grow in home refrigerators, which means that products can acquire the bacteria even if they are safe when leaving a plant.

That has led companies to reformulate products with chemicals like lactic acid and sodium diacetate, which help limit the organism's growth, according to Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety.

"We know that it's an impossibility to eradicate listeria because it's so present in the environment," Doyle said. "The best thing to do is for the companies to reformulate, so listeria can't grow."

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