Feb. 26, 2008 -- CEOs from some of the nation's biggest food companies tried to allay safety fears Tuesday, telling lawmakers on Capitol Hill that they're cracking down on violations that have lead to dozens of food recalls.
The latest recall was a record halt on sales of 143 million pounds of beef from California's Hallmark/Westland company. The company was the No. 2 supplier of meat to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's school lunch program, which feeds millions of children.
Investigators have found no cases of illness being caused by the Hallmark/Westland meat. But a secret tape made by the Humane Society showed workers slaughtering weak or sick "downer cows" for food.
Leaders of companies including Dole, ConAgra, and tuna canner Bumble Bee all told lawmakers they were embarrassed by recent food recalls from their plants.
An analysis by a House investigative subcommittee showed that companies have issued food recalls more than 90 times in the last year. They included a recall of Peter Pan peanut butter and Banquet turkey pot pies last year, both because of salmonella contamination. Both products are made by food giant ConAgra.
Gary M. Rodkin, ConAgra's CEO, told lawmakers that the company has "completely revamped its safety procedures and has also hired 250 new safety personnel.
"I want to reiterate how truly sorry we are for any harm that our recalled peanut butter or pot pie products may have caused any consumer," Rodkin said.
Lawmakers praised the Humane Society for the secretly-made videotape, but some Republicans questioned why the group held the tape secret for more than three months before notifying the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month.
"If you're concerned about the public health aspect ... why not do something," said Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican who is also a physician.
Michael Greger, MD, the Human Society's public health director, said the group kept the tapes secret at the request of California prosecutors, who pursued criminal charges against some plant workers.
"They asked us not to publicly release this information, to hold off so they could carry out their own criminal investigation," he said. Greger said Humane Society investigators did not know that Hallmark/Westland supplied meat for school lunches when the tape was made.
The Westland beef recall has refocused already intense congressional attention on food safety. Several lawmakers repeated calls Tuesday for food safety divisions of the CDC and the FDA to be combined into one single food safety agency.
Democrats are also pushing to give government agencies the power to unilaterally order recalls of potentially tainted food. Companies conduct recalls now on a voluntary basis.
"My constituents are frankly shocked when they find out that these agencies don't have mandatory recall authority. They think they do," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.