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Crawford Leaves USDA Inspection Service Post : Government: His departure comes shortly after he admonished poultry industry over its safety record.

August 22, 1991|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A top federal agriculture official resigned last week leaving behind an agency unable to solve the continuing problem of contamination in the nation's chicken processing plants.

Lester M. Crawford, Ph.D., administrator of the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, made news recently for an uncharacteristically tough speech to poultry industry officials in which he told them to "do something (about) dirty chicken."

Now, after several years on the job, Crawford is leaving his post to take an executive position with the National Food Processors Assn., a Washington trade group. The change is significant because virtually all of the nation's food safety programs are operated either by Crawford's Food Safety and Inspection Service or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Crawford said his departure, scheduled for month's end, is voluntary, although there have been reports that he was asked, or encouraged, to leave by Secretary Edward Madigan, who has headed the U.S. Department of Agriculture since March.

"My departure is totally voluntary," said Crawford, who is both a veterinarian and a microbiologist. "I said I would serve five years and I have been on the job about five years and six months, which is the longest I've spent in any single position in my career. You don't stay in these high-tension jobs any longer than that."

Madigan's press secretary, Roger Runningen, would say only, "Crawford had some good (job) offers and Madigan understood his desire to pursue those."

Crawford's tenure was described with faint praise by allies and castigated by critics.

Madigan, for one, is purportedly unhappy with the heated criticism heaped on USDA from Congress and consumer groups on a number of fronts, including its work on food safety, which was primarily Crawford's responsibility for the past four years. Recently, Madigan's USDA has also been compared-- by consumer activists, the media, other government officials and employees of his own agency--unfavorably to FDA under its new activist commissioner David A. Kessler.

One leading food industry analyst said that not enough was done in recent years to restore public confidence in the meat supply.

"At this stage, the situation involving camphylobacter and salmonella in poultry is in tough shape," said Dave Theno, president of Modesto-based Theno & Associates and a former executive with a major California poultry company. "Part of the problem was that (Crawford) has been unable to answer the critics (of FSIS) . . . With reduced confidence in the meat industry and in the government it is important to make positive steps."

Theno said that one positive step was made in June when Crawford admonished poultry industry officials to solve the dirty chicken problem. "In the past," Crawford told stunned audience members of a National Broiler Council meeting in June, "USDA has been typecast as the defender of the (meat) industry. We have not been and will not be. . . . If it comes to choosing between the health of agribusiness and the health of the American people, we will take the public health course every time."

But Crawford's tough talk may have come too late because it only further alienated potential supporters in the meat industry and was simply inadequate for his detractors.

"Overall the management of FSIS is just abysmal," said Rod Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute in Washington. "I can't describe how poorly I think the agency has been, and continues to be, administrated."

Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the Oakland-based Western States Meat Assn., said Crawford "provided some good leadership in our domestic programs."

"It's a tough job," said Mucklow. "The time has come for him to make a change and for things in the (meat) inspection program to change."

Another Washington observer, who asked for anonymity, said that Crawford is not to blame for all the troubles at FSIS because he frequently had to implement the wishes of politically appointed superiors who were always protecting the meat industry's interests.

Nevertheless, one of Crawford's most innovative recommendations was to implement a new approach to meat inspection entitled Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). Under the yet-to-be-implemented program those areas with the greatest likelihood of error or contamination would receive all the federal inspectors' attention and scrutiny.

Proponents of the plan say it would concentrate resources where they are needed most. Opponents argue that it will both reduce and redeploy staff in analready inadequate meat inspection program. These same critics further state that the solution is to reduce the high-speed carcass processing in today's plants.

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