Con­gress­woman wants USDA stripped of food safety re­spon­si­bil­ity

Pro­posal fol­lows largest meat re­call in U.S. his­tory

The Covington News - - Agriculture & Outdoors - By Ja­cob Adel­man

LOS AN­GE­LES — A law­maker called Tues­day for the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture to be stripped of its re­spon­si­bil­ity for food safety in the wake of the na­tion’s largest-ever meat re­call.

The agency’s twin man­dates of pro­mot­ing the na­tion’s agri­cul­ture and mon­i­tor­ing it for safety have be­come blurred, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro said.

“Food safety ought to be of a high enough pri­or­ity in this na­tion that we have a sin­gle agency that deals with it and not an agency that is re­spon­si­ble for pro­mot­ing a prod­uct, sell­ing a prod­uct and then as an af­ter­thought deal­ing with how our food sup­ply is safe,” said DeLauro, a Con­necti­cut Demo­crat who chairs the House sub­com­mit­tee re­spon­si­ble for the USDA’s fund­ing.

She made her re­marks dur­ing a con­fer­ence call with re­porters about the re­call of some 143 mil­lion pounds of beef prod­ucts dat­ing to Feb. 1, 2006, from Chino-based West­land/Hall­mark Meat Co.

Phone mes­sages left for USDA spokesman Keith Wil­liams and West­land pres­i­dent Steve Men­dell were not im­me­di­ately re­turned.

USDA of­fi­cials an­nounced the re­call Sun­day af­ter the Hu­mane So­ci­ety of the United States re­leased un­der­cover video show­ing crip­pled and sick an­i­mals at the slaugh­ter­house be­ing shoved with fork­lifts.

Fed­eral reg­u­la­tions dis­cour­age slaugh­ter­houses from pro­cess­ing “downer cows” into meat be­cause they may pose a higher risk of con­tam­i­na­tion from E. coli, sal­mo­nella or mad cow dis­ease, but the USDA still per­mits them to be used with an in­spec­tor’s ap­proval, Hu­mane So­ci­ety pres­i­dent Wayne Pa­celle said.

No ill­nesses have been linked to the re­called beef, health of­fi­cials said.

Of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that about 55 mil­lion pounds of the re­called beef went to USDA nu­tri­tion pro­grams, the bulk of it for schools, Pa­celle said.

DeLauro planned a pair of hear­ings for early March to ex­am­ine why fed­eral in­spec­tors did not note the mis­treat­ment and take steps to en­sure that “the school lunch pro­gram does not be­come the in­dus­try dump­ing ground for bad meat.”

Pa­celle said he hoped the at­ten­tion to downer cat­tle would prompt law­mak­ers to pass pend- ing leg­is­la­tion in the House and Se­nate that would keep all downer cows out of the food sup­ply.

Rep. Ge­orge Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Ed­u­ca­tion and La­bor Com­mit­tee, said dur­ing the con­fer­ence call that the U.S. Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice had started in­ves­ti­gat­ing the safety of the Na­tional School Lunch Pro­gram, which is ad­min­is­tered by the USDA.

Also on Tues­day, Chino po­lice said they had ar­rested one of the meat­pack­ing work­ers charged with an­i­mal cru­elty in the case.

Daniel Ugarte Navarro, who worked as a pen man­ager at the slaugh­ter­house, was taken into cus­tody Satur­day at his Pomona home on a war­rant is­sued the day be­fore, po­lice spokes­woman Michelle Van­der­lin­den said. He was re­leased Sun­day on $7,500 bail.

Navarro, 49, was charged with five felony counts of an­i­mal abuse and three mis­de­meanor counts of il­le­gal move­ment of a non-am­bu­la­tory an­i­mal, San Bernardino County pros­e­cu­tor Deb­bie Ploghaus said. The counts carry a max­i­mum prison sen­tence of 5 years, 8 months, she said.

Navarro will be as­signed an at­tor­ney by the county pub­lic de­fender’s of­fice at his ar­raign­ment on March 24, Ploghaus said.

Luis Sanchez, 32, of Chino, was charged with three mis­de­meanor counts and re­mained at large, Ploghaus said.

At­tempts to find phone list­ings for Navarro and Sanchez were not suc­cess­ful. Both men were fired af­ter the Hu­mane So­ci­ety re­leased the video.

West­land’s busi­ness prac­tices also are be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for pos­si­ble state or lo­cal vi­o­la­tions, pros­e­cu­tor Glenn Yabuno said. He did not elab­o­rate.

In Cal­i­for­nia, Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger urged the USDA to com­plete a quick in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the ap­par­ent mis­treat­ment and of­fered the sup­port of the state De­part­ment of Food and Agri­cul­ture.

Sch­warzeneg­ger said he sup­ports leg­is­la­tion by state Sen. Dean Florez that would al­low Cal­i­for­nia school dis­tricts to be re­im­bursed for beef bought from West­land. Florez said he was con­sult­ing with lawyers over whether the slaugh­ter­house could be forced to pay for the re­im­burse­ments.

Cal­i­for­nia schools re­ported or­der­ing some 7.4 mil­lion pounds beef from the com­pany since July 2007, ac­cord­ing to Florez’s of­fice.

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