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Report questions USDA's meat recall tracking

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Recalls of tainted meat may not get as much product off the market as the Agriculture Department has reported, an agency audit has found.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service's ``conclusions regarding the effectiveness of food safety recalls may be based on inaccurate or incomplete information,'' the report said.

The USDA inspector general's office examined one of the largest recalls in history, 27.4 million pounds of processed deli poultry from a Wampler Foods plant in Franconia, Pa., in 2002. The recall, ordered by Wampler Foods' owner, Pilgrim's Pride, was monitored by the department's FSIS.

The FSIS responded that it has improved its system for tracking the effectiveness of recalls. And meat industry officials said the industry does a good job of getting the product back. But a consumer advocate said problems in gathering data are built into the system.

In the Wampler Foods case, government officials found a floor drain harbored listeria of a strain that was blamed in a food poisoning outbreak that left eight people dead and sickened about 45 others starting in July 2002.

The strain of listeria also had been found at another plant, J.L. Foods Co. in Camden, N.J. The government said product samples from various days of Wampler Foods production did not show the bacteria.

In the end, Pilgrim's Pride reported recovery of more than 5.5 million pounds of product, and the recall was terminated in July 2003 after the food safety agency determined that the effort had been effective.

But the inspector general's office said there were holes in the records on which the agency based its determination. The office examined 582 effectiveness check forms, and found discrepancies in 389.

``We attributed this high error rate to the careless approach FSIS compliance officers and supervisory personnel took in overseeing the recall,'' the report said. It cited instances in which the officials did not match the amount of product held by a distributor with the amount shipped from the plant.

After the Wampler Foods case, the FSIS revised its methods for tracking the effectiveness of recalls. ``FSIS has made substantial changes to its recall process, strengthened verification activities, and established clearer lines of authority,'' the agency's acting director, Dr. Barbara Masters, said Thursday in a statement.

The inspector general's office said the revisions do not go far enough in making sure the FSIS knows what happens to recalled product. But an FSIS spokesman, Steve Cohen, said the agency is still implementing its revisions and the changes address the concerns.

``It's an imperfect system, but I am impressed by how well it actually works,'' said Rosemary Mucklow, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, a trade group for meat processors. She said her group's members do not process poultry.

The recall system functions because companies know their customers and how much product they ship, Mucklow said. The FSIS compliance officers ``are really not knowledgeable in the details of every company's distribution system,'' and some probably are not good at creating the audit trails, she said.

At the National Chicken Council, another trade group, spokesman Richard Lobb said he could not judge the effectiveness of FSIS officials in handling their own paperwork on the poultry recall. But he said the current recall system is effective because companies ``know where their product is, and if it needs to be recalled or held, they do so.''

A consumer advocate countered that the system is part of the problem.

``The companies are under no legal obligation to provide this information to USDA, and that probably leads to many of the gaps in the data,'' said Caroline Smith DeWaal, head of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
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