Food maker CEOs face House grilling
Panel to ask heads of ConAgra and other companies about recurring safety lapses.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Lawmakers and food company CEOs come face-to-face Tuesday in a special hearing to address food safety lapses following this month's largest beef recall in U.S. history.
The hearing, titled " Contaminated Food: Private Sector Accountability," is being called by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subpanel responsible for probing food safety issues.
"We will have before us the presidents and CEOs of some of the companies that have produced contaminated food in the past year," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the House Energy Committee chairman, in a statement.
"I look forward to not only asking them why the incidents involving their products occurred, but also what our regulators were doing during these incidents," said Dingell, is an ex-officio member of the subpanel.
Among the executives scheduled to testify is Steve Mendell, CEO of Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., but Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said that Mendell has refused to appear voluntarily. He and other lawmakers will discuss whether to issue a subpoena, he said.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ordered a 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.
The USDA said about 37 million pounds of meat produced by Westland/Hallmark has been supplied to school lunch programs and other federal nutrition programs since October 2006.
A published report Monday quoted a Westland/Hallmark employee as saying that the company may have to shut down its operations.
Also scheduled to testify at the hearing are 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.
This is the fifth in a series of hearings held over the past year to address safety measures pertaining to both domestic and imported food.
In September, Dingell introduced a bill that would give safety enforcement agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), authority to issue mandatory recalls, require "country of origin" labeling for food and other products, and create fees for food imports.
The bill specifies that the funds generated from such fees would be used for additional inspections of food producers and imports.
The events at Westland/Hallmark follow a few months after a similar situation hit another meat product manufacturer, Topps Meat Co.
Topps, once the largest maker of frozen hamburgers, shut its entire operations Oct. 6, a week after it announced a recall of almost 22 million pounds of ground beef due to potential contamination of the meat by E.coli bacteria.
So far this year, the USDA, which authorizes recalls of meat and poultry products, has issued five such recalls. That's on top of 58 recalls in 2007 and 34 the year before.
Those numbers are substantially larger when you include food-related recalls also issued by the FDA, which typically involve produce, seafood, fruits and packaged foods.
Consumer advocacy groups, such as D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, say both the USDA and the FDA aren't doing enough to "keep American consumers safe."
"Our longstanding policy is for Congress to create a single food safety agency and give that agency mandatory recall authority," said Jeff Cronin, communications director with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"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," Cronin said. "The FDA is already very busy with drug safety enforcement."
Moreover, Cronin said any bill calling for tougher food safety measures shouldn't place excessive blame on food imports as being responsible for higher safety risks than U.S.-produced food.