A week after the Agriculture Department announced wider testing for potentially deadly E. coli in meat, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said Tuesday that regulations were overburdening food producers.
Bachmann visited a 140-year-old, family-run meatpacking plant in Des Moines and took a turn at cutting ribeye steaks in a chilly meat locker as she pushed back against regulations for food makers and other businesses. She did not call for the repeal of any specific rules.
"We want to have safety," she said. "But we also want to have common sense."
Bachmann says, as do most of those in the GOP field, that a lightened regulatory load would allow employers to spend money on expansion rather than federal compliance. But the Minnesota congresswoman is the first to focus the argument on the food-processing industry.
"That's part of the problem, the overkill," Bachmann told reporters during an appearance in which she posed with huge slabs of beef. "And when they make it complicated, they make it expensive and so then you can no longer stay in business."
The Agriculture Department said expanding testing of E. coli in meat from one strain to seven would hasten recalls of tainted products and help officials identify more foodborne illnesses. However, the meat industry opposed the move as too expensive without enough benefit. The USDA expects the additional testing to begin in March.
Bachmann's backing of the food industry view that regulations are a problem follows high-profile recalls of peanuts, eggs and other tainted food products. The most recent multistate alert focused on cantaloupes amid a listeria outbreak blamed for at least four deaths in New Mexico. Officials said this week that tainted cantaloupes had sickened at least 35 people in 10 states.
Bachmann wrapped up a two-day Iowa campaign swing at Amend Packing Co., where owner Kent Wiese said his business had never been cited for food-safety violations yet struggled to keep up with federal regulations, especially amid the economic downturn.
"We do have a clean record," Wiese said, explaining the battery of self-testing and regular USDA testing conducted at his plant. "And it all costs money. And I just wish that they could simplify it and just test it once and be done with it."
Wiese said large-scale meatpackers should be required to submit to a more rigorous testing regimen, because of the volume of animals they process. Wiese butchers 12 to 15 head of cattle once a week, while national meatpackers handle hundreds per hour.
Congress passed a sweeping food safety bill at the end of last year with strong support from the Obama administration. Bachmann was among those who voted against it.
Small-scale food producers often argue that their products are safer because they are produced in smaller, less-mechanized batches. Experts counter that unsafe food can be produced anywhere.