Lawmakers blast food safety 'mess'
House panel probing recalls say companies and federal agencies can't be relied upon to protect American consumers.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- House lawmakers, calling the U.S. food safety system "fragile" and a "mess," harshly chastised leading food companies and federal agencies Tuesday for allowing unsafe products to reach American consumers.
"Over the last 18 months we've had E.coli in bagged spinach, salmonella found in tomatoes, lettuce contaminated with E.coli at Taco Bell, frozen pot pies contaminated with salmonella," Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said at a House Energy and Commerce Committee subpanel hearing probing food safety issues.
Stupak, chairman of the oversight and investigation subcommittee, also highlighted this month's recent recall of 143 million pounds of beef produced by Westland/Hallmark - the largest in U.S. history - after a video showed potentially sick cows being dragged to the slaughterhouse.
"Our food safety system is broken. Relying on the food industry to place safety before profits does not seem to be working," Stupak said.
He also said that both the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) - two agencies that share responsibility for ensuring the safety of food products - were underfunded, had "inconsistent oversight" and "ineffective coordination" and can't be relied upon to protect American consumers.
"Some 76 million Americans, 1 out of every 4, are affected each year by illness from contaminated foods," Stupak said. "The overarching question for the CEOs testifying today is simply how do we fix our critical food safety net."
CEOs on the spot
Gary Rodkin, CEO of ConAgra Foods (CAG, Fortune 500), Christopher Lischewski, CEO of Bumble Bee Food, David DeLorenzo, CEO of Dole Food Co., and Keith Shoemaker, CEO of Butterball were among the executives who testified Tuesday about past product recalls.
Also invited to testify was Steve Mendell, CEO of Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., but Stupak said Mendell has refused to appear voluntarily. Stupak said the next step would be to "compel" Mendell, by way of a subpoena, to appear before the committee at a later date.
Rodkin, who was repeatedly grilled by the panel over the company's recall of beef, pot pie and popcorn products, was asked what was needed to make the nation's food supply safer.
"If we have access to information earlier [from the regulatory bodies] about our products being unsafe, that would would help us protect consumers sooner rather than dumping the information all at once," he said.
Dole Foods' Lorenzo said he favored clear regulation on food safety procedures and policies, and transparency among food companies and agencies.
"The one big issue that concerns us the most is E.coli. More research there is very important," he said.
Rodkin and Shoemaker were also questioned about last October's recall of ConAgra's Banquet pot pies due to potential salmonella contamination.
Although Butterball supplied the turkey for the pot pies, Shoemaker stressed that investigations found that its turkey was not the source of the salmonella.
When Rodkin replied that he's never been able to say definitively that the problem was with the Butterball turkey, or what the actual source of the contamination was, this prompted one frustrated committee member to ask how Americans were then to be reassured that the next pot pie they buy would be safe
Rodkin said he hoped ConAgra's tougher product safety systems that include safety audits of all of its plants, employee training and facility upgrades would mitigate that risk.
"But any salmonella that is still left in the products can't survive additional cooking," he said, adding that new packing for the pot pie now instructs consumers to cook the product for longer than the previously suggested four minutes.
Other committee members echoed Stupak's criticisms of these safety lapses.
"It's stunning how much impaired food is reaching our dinner tables," said Rep., Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. "Last year, 5,000 people died from contaminated food products and most were beef or seafoods."
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said she feared more outbreaks to come. "What's maddening is that these incidents are preventable," she said.
DeGette, who has introduced a bill that calls for both the FDA and the USDA to be given mandatory recall authority, said waiting for companies to issue voluntary recalls after they find a problem with their products is "like the fox guarding the hen house."
When DeGette asked Rodkin why his company chose to first issue a consumer advisory rather than a recall of the pot pies, Rodkin said it was what the USDA had advised the company to do.
"All [food] recalls today are voluntary," she added. "This legislation will correct this by ordering recalls as soon as an outbreak occurs."
Consumer advocacy groups, such as D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, have also called for the creation of a single food safety agency with mandatory recall authority.
"The problem with having two agencies in charge of food safety is that both have lots of other things on their plate other than food safety," said Jeff Cronin, communications director with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.