- WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Amid a still-rising death toll from listeria-tainted
hot dogs and lunch meat, a consumer group Thursday demanded that the U.S.
Agriculture Department require companies to test the riskiest foods for
the fatal disease. Listeria, a relatively unknown foodborne disease, has
been a focus of media attention in recent weeks with a string of outbreaks
reported in U.S. delicatessen meats, milk and other refrigerated products
that do not need cooking. At least 16 deaths have been blamed on Sara
Lee Corp hot dogs and lunch meat since August, according to the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control, which raised the death toll Wednesday. The agency
is monitoring the outbreak in 14 states. The spate of recent cases has
puzzled regulators, who say there is no obvious reason to account for the
increase. One immediate step that should be taken, according to the Center
for Science in the Public Interest, is to require listeria testing by companies
of the riskiest food products. "We need better testing of ready-to-eat
foods that consumers do not cook," said Caroline Smith De Waal, a
food safety analyst with the center. "We are going to ask the USDA
to require companies to start this testing for hot dogs, lunch meat, cold
cuts and other high-risk foods."
- The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration
now conduct random testing for listeria. The USDA regulates meat and poultry,
while the FDA is responsible for other foods. Listeria typically affects
only infants, unborn babies, the elderly and others with weak immune systems.
While less common than the foodborne diseases campylobacter or salmonella,
20 percent of those who get sick from listeria die. Since December, Sara
Lee Corp has recalled an estimated 35 million pounds of hog dogs and luncheon
meat, but expects to actually retrieve only about 15 million pounds. Hormel
Foods Corp, Thorn Apple Valley and grocery store chain Winn-Dixie recently
recalled products because of suspected listeria. Tuesday, single-serve
cartons of milk sold under the Land O'Lakes brand were also recalled.
The USDA described the recent outbreaks across the United States as "unfortunate"
and said the illnesses "present an opportunity to strengthen control
efforts from farm to table."
- The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection
Service has scheduled a public meeting Wednesday to take a closer look
at how to prevent listeria and ways to improve company recalls. High on
the list is a review of how the USDA randomly samples ready-to-eat products
like lunch meat and industry procedures for recalling meat suspected of
contamination. The USDA said it would also look at how companies use "sell-by"
dates on meat and poultry labels. Lester Crawford, a former head of the
FSIS, said the outbreaks were especially startling because the Centers
for Disease Control determined in 1994 that the industry had successfully
reduced listeria contamination. The outbreak comes at a time when the
Clinton administration has launched a series of food safety measures, including
new requirements that meat plants adopt science-based safety checkpoints.
Last week, the FDA's Center for Food Safety ranked listeria as one of its
top priorities for research in 1999. Food safety experts urged the USDA
to take a look at whether companies have extended the shelf life of their
products too long, which might promote the growth of listeria. The department
also needs to closely inspect equipment at meat plants and determine if
listeria may be spreading inadvertently through some new processes or through