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Where's the beef been?

About the last thing the beef industry needed was an outbreak of killer hamburgers. After all, meat producers have had their fill of bad news in recent years: Scientists churning out more and more evidence that beef fat not only plumps up your girth, but also your cholesterol level; the average amount of beef consumed by Americans dropping 10 percent since 1983; even environmentalists complaining that ranchers have been cutting down too many trees to create grazeland for their herds.

So earlier this year, when a Washington State Jack in the Box served up tainted, not-quite-cooked meat patties, the industry's woes got a whole lot worse. It wasn't just that bovines might devour the planet's forestland in 200 years, or that too many Big Macs will kill you in 20, but that eating the wrong burger might kill you tonight. If federal meat inspection is so lax that spoiled meat could make it all the way to a restaurant table, what's to prevent similar bacterial outbreaks from occurring at any neighborhood burger joint?

That was one public sentiment the warroom Clintonites couldn't miss. So, to their credit, they wasted little time in the weeks following the tragedy to demonstrate that they would prevent future Jack in the Boxes. The solution, announced by Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy late this winter, was twofold: 160 more federal meat inspectors and a new standard to test raw meat for dangerous disease-causing microbes like E. coli 0157:H7. The plan was right on target--so on target that the media immediately trumpeted the good news on front pages and editorial columns as the long-overdue enactment of crucial reforms. Or so it seemed.

What the media ignored in their eagerness to declare the problem solved was that while Espy and his meat watchers were mouthing the right words, they offered little in the way of a coherent plan. A close read of Espy's "Pathogen Reduction Program" reveals a document so short on substance that it is virtually meaningless. The plan, laments Carol Tucker Foreman, assistant secretary in charge of meat inspection in the Carter administration and now a member of the Safe Food Coalition, is the equivalent of "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

But the Clinton administration isn't the first to repackage the meat rules and declare a breakthrough. In fact, the current pattern of "reform," judging from similar outbreaks in recent years, is the rule rather than the exception: Tainted meat enters the food supply; the government announces a tougher inspection plan; the media applaud; the new plan is never properly implemented--and the issue is forgotten until the next rash of deaths whereupon the cycle begins anew. There is, however, one difference this time around: Unlike the leadership of the past 12 years, this administration is supposed to be giving us more than government as usual.

Steer clear

Of course, the administration can be active in only so many areas, but it's hard to argue that meat inspection doesn't qualify as one of them. Six to eight million cases of foodborne illness occur in the United States annually, and nearly 9,000 result in death, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And of these deaths, more than 80 percent can be traced to consumption of meat and poultry. So inadequate is the meat inspection system that those who know it best barely trust it: "Yes, I eat meat," confesses one Montana meat inspector, "but I shoot my own." Another inspector says that while he does eat store-bought meat, he makes sure to conduct his own personal inspection for hair, ingesta, pieces of metal, and other surprises.

The most dangerous surprises, of course, are the ones you can't see: disease-spreading bacteria. While all meat that passes through processing plants is examined for obvious defects- carcasses defiled by feces, pus-filled abscesses, blood, hair, and the like--there's no requirement that meat be inspected for the little bugs that can kill. Inspecting for these microbes--which means augmenting human observation with equipment capable of detecting the bacteria that cause food-borne disease--means identifying contamination before meat is packed onto delivery trucks. The process involves swabbing the meat or sending a piece for lab analysis, thereby providing the plant and USDA with information on contamination, such as which bacteria are present and to what extent.

Certainly, the notion of testing for microbes is neither new nor part of a fringe-group agenda. As far back as 1985, for example, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report recommending sweeping changes in the inspection system, reforms which included a call for microbial testing. And then, like now, change appeared imminent. "We hurried to finish the report," recalls Norman Heidlebaugh, a member of the NAS committee. "We felt a sense of urgency. We thought our recommendations were going to be implemented."

Heidlebaugh's optimism was natural considering the unique combination of characteristics of this public health problem: It's big, and it's solvable. It's tough to say just how much that 9,000-dead-bodies-a-year figure would decrease with an improved system, primarily because lower disease rates would depend on what USDA deemed permissible contamination" and how strictly it enforced that contamination standard. But putting microbial testing itself into place is the precursor to those other important regulations.

So when the White House made mouth motions about such seemingly smart policy, the press eagerly jumped on board. The New York Times, for example, reported that the USDA's new program would enlist "advanced scientific techniques and monitoring equipment to discover invisible and very dangerous microbes," and would "completely change the basis for safeguarding the meat supply." The Washington Post concurred: "The U.S. Department of Agriculture is declaring |war on pathogens,' and its instruments of destruction will include the weapons of technology, infiltration, and information gathering."

The reality? The plan not only ignores any explanation of how the agency plans to fund microbial testing, but fails to even lay out what level of microbial infection in meat should cause inspectors to sound alarms. And those are just the obvious omissions. The plan, explains Dave Carney, veteran meat and poultry inspector and president of the North Central Council of Food Inspection Locals, is so toothless that it offers "no penalties for violations, it has no role for inspectors, and no pathogen is discussed in any detail."

Instead, the report, in the finest Washington tradition of water treading, promises studies and research toward better equipment. Out of 29 pages, nine are appendices and four detail a public and merchant education campaign--both relevant perhaps, but not what should make up half of a "program."

While the USDA has made good in one area of reform--hiring 160 more inspectors--that fix is little help without other changes: More inspectors simply means more people contending with inadequate contamination standards and plant conditions. "If something's gone wrong," explains Heidlebaugh, who is also a retired professor of veterinary public health at Texas A&M University, "don't intensify what you're doing."

But that's exactly what's likely to happen. The USDA is not opposed to a safer meat supply, of course, but once you get beyond its public posturing on microbial testing, agency officials aren't all that committed to making the reforms stick. Why not?

Recently Russell Cross, the chief of USDA's meat inspection division, claimed while testifying before Congress that microbes such as E. coli can be detected only through a six day test. While all microbes cannot be detected immediately, Cross failed to mention that scientists in his own agency, namely at a USDA lab in Philadelphia, are using a 24-hour test to detect the dangerous E. coli, as well as 48-hour tests to spot Listeria and Salmonella.

USDA bureaucrats, when questioned, also downplay microbial testing, arguing that analyzing every carcass would be impossible. That's true, of course. But who said every carcass should be tested? Spot-testing carcasses is not a leakproof safety net, but NON-USDA food safety experts say it would go a long way toward bringing some semblance of control. Indeed, one inspection program heralded by USDA and others is the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system, or HACCP. The awkward appellation simply means that there are a few, and only a few, points in the inspection process which are critical for quality control. If such "hot spots" can be determined, then spot testing at those points would provide extensive data on contamination.

Perhaps the only USDA excuse that carries any weight is the cost of the testing, But even here, the agency's estimates reveal more of a reluctance to tackle the problem than a willingness to see it dealt with effectively. USDA estimates that "adequate" testing will cost nearly $58 billion. Simply stated, says Ed Zadjura, assistant director of food safety at the General Accounting Office and co-author of a number of GAO reports on meat inspection, "that number is totally, absolutely meaningless. Nobody who has advocated bringing this system into the 20th century has advocated checking every piece of meat, which is what that figure must be based on. I think it's just a scare tactic." The budget office of USDA reports that it was instructed to calculate the figure based on a 20 percent sampling rate at $50 a test. Zadjura's counterpoint, once informed of the agency's math: Less than I percent would need to be sampled and $50 sounds suspiciously high. Suffice it to say that no outside agency has estimated what the program would cost, and USDA doesn't seem to want them to.

What USDA may really find repulsive about microbial testing, however, probably has less to do with limits of science or money than with simple bureaucratic cowardice. That is, USDA is shrewd enough to realize that if it is officially responsible for finding deadly microbes--admittedly no easy task--then it will be the USDA, and not the local burger kitchen, that will be under the gun the next time people die from tainted meat or poultry.

Fortunately, there is a government body that can make USDA take microbe testing seriously: Congress. Unfortunately, the legislature isn't likely to amend current inspection laws anytime soon, thanks to the usual combination of industry money and Congressional gridlock.

Meat and poultry industry PACs dug up $30,000 to donate to the 1992 re-election campaign of Rep. Charles Stenholm, who happens to be from Texas cattle country and who also happens to chair the agricultural subcommittee with jurisdiction over meat inspection. (Stenholm's $30,000 in meat and poultry' PAC money, by the way, was $13,000 more than his opponent collected in total campaign contributions). Stenholm also accepted almost $9,000 in 1990 in meat industry honoraria, and took nine trips that year sponsored by meat and poultry interests.

Meat is mortar

It hardly needs to be said that revamping meat inspection laws would not endear Stenholm to the meat industry, which is an outright enemy of any governmental standards for microbial contamination. That should come as little surprise considering what testing will mean, at least in the short run-lost revenue. Not only would it add another step to the processing line, but comprehensive testing would ultimately mean discarding larger quantities of meat than are now rejected using the eyeballing inspection methods.

Nonetheless, some larger meat companies do test for microbial contamination at their own onsite labs, mainly because some buyers, such as McDonalds, insist upon it. Is it cost effective? Just ask Jack in the Box. Government intervention would help small companies, who can't afford in-house labs (or big PAC contributions), and therefore aren't competitors in the McDonalds league.

A favorite Stenholm line is to cite the very real problem of divided jurisdiction--USDA is in charge of meat and poultry, FDA in charge of seafood and most other foods--and say the whole system should be scrapped and begun anew. This, of course, is a prescription for stasis.

According to an aide, Stenholm is not without a plan: more studies. Stenholm recently asked the General Accounting Office to take yet another look at testing. His office eagerly awaits the results, which are due out this fall. And, the aide added, Stenholm--in his zeal to get to the heart of the matter--may request yet another in-depth review of meat inspection, this time from the National Academy of Sciences. When reminded that NAS executed such a study eight years ago and that its recommendations are still not law, the aide blamed labor unions for resisting the proposed changes, but later acknowledged that there was some industry pressure as well.

The labor union charge rings, well, a little off-key. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), one of the unions representing plant workers and inspectors, endorses all changes recommended by NAS and has done so since the report was published. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the other major union, proposed an amended list of changes for the inspection program because it felt that the NAS proposals were couched in language that could provide USDA with escape routes from meaningful change. With hindsight, that seems a justifiable concern.

While Congress is busy awaiting reports, the last remaining avenue to prod reform might appear to be the courts, e.g. a class action suit by the infected masses against USDA. Forget it--it's been tried. In 1974, the American Public Health Association took Earl Butz, the secretary of Agriculture, to court, charging USDA with misleading consumers by putting the label "U.S. Inspected for Wholesomeness" on a product that could make you sick. The court ruled that microscopic examination was the only method of determining whether meat was "adulterated," and that microscopic inspection was not required under current meat inspection law. Which brings us back to changing the law and the politics of Charlie Stenholm.

All of this simply throws the ball back where it should be--in the executive's court. The Clinton administration may not be able to predict with any certainty, say, the course of the nation's economic future or where the next international bloodbath will occur, but one safe bet is that sooner or later, there's going to be another rash of deaths from tainted meat. Now that there's technology to help prevent it, what's missing is the political will. It would be satisfying if the man who gave a White House blessing to fast food were the same man who made the stuff safer to eat.
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Title Annotation:planned policy for meat inspection
Author:O'Hanlon, Ann
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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