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Tough Talk From New Fed Inspection Chief

March 05, 1992|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALM SPRINGS — The federal government will launch a comprehensive survey of the nation's meat and poultry industries to determine the extent of microbiological contamination in processing plants and products, the new administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service announced here Feb. 28.

FSIS is the Agriculture Department's massive meat and poultry inspection system, with a staff of 9,000 backed by a $500-million budget. Despite the presence of FSIS inspectors in all U.S. meat processing plants, the agency is besieged with criticism that it is failing to stem rising rates of contamination.

The new administrator, H. Russell Cross Ph.D., said in an interview with The Times that he anticipates the unprecedented nationwide review to last about a year. It will attempt to identify the levels of "significant pathogens" in fresh meat. Among the targeted organisms will be Salmonella, Camphylobacter, Listeria and E. coli.

Cross said the national plant review is important because it will allow FSIS to determine how successful future programs may be in reducing harmful bacteria in food. "Microbiological problems, in general, are a big issue for me," he said. "I can't say that we will rid the food supply of all (harmful bacteria)--that's unrealistic. But we will reduce the levels as much as we can . . . and we will do it soon."

"Today," he said, "if we introduced a program (to lower contamination rates), there would be nothing that we could measure our progress against." As an example, the survey is expected to establish a more definitive assessment of the incidence of Salmonella in chicken. Current estimates range from 37% to 67% of all carcasses leaving the processing plants.

The soft-spoken Cross, former chair of Texas A & M's animal sciences department, has taken a decidedly tough, pro-consumer stance on public health issues since his appointment on Feb. 10. His statements are uncharacteristic of an agency that is charged, by advocacy groups and some in Congress, with being too close to the industry it oversees.

"We are not in the business of making the meat industry more money," he said. "I do not want to be perceived as protective of industry. That's not our job."

Cross' selection by Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan last month was criticized by a consumer group coalition on a number of fronts. The coalition decried the fact that Cross is neither a veterinarian nor similarly credentialed in public health.

"To run an agency like FSIS you need scientific credentials, and mine are in food science," Cross said in response to his critics. "But you also have to have administrative skills. (The people) who were criticizing my selection did not read my resume."

As a researcher, Cross has been at the forefront of the movement to reduce the fat content of beef. He also said that he has a strong background in food safety issues.

The coalition also took Cross to task for maintaining the same $130,000 salary he had at Texas A & M under a provision known as "inter-government personal action." In essence, he is taking a temporary leave from the university and therefore will not lose important tenure, seniority or benefits from the school.

Critics such as Carol Tucker Foreman, a top USDA official in the Carter Administration and now a Washington-based consultant, said that the salary arrangement may present conflict of interest problems for Cross.

"(This arrangement) is very questionable for someone in a regulatory position," Foreman said. "They should be absolutely independent of outside ties. Texas A & M has a huge contract with FSIS to run a training program for meat inspectors. And now we get a guy who has been on the faculty at A & M and we bring him to Washington but let him keep all his (financial) ties to Texas A & M."

Cross said that "inter-government personal action" is not new and has been used many times in the federal government. He insists that he will be divorced from any USDA action involving his former employer.

"Any issues involving Texas A & M, including any contracts with FSIS for running the training school, I will be totally separate from that," he said. "I told the people at Texas A & M not to contact me at all regarding these issues . . . I'll read about it in the newspaper."

Cross said that the inter-government arrangement may even be a benefit.

"I'll do what is right (in this job) and if the Administration doesn't like it then they can tell me to go back to College Station, Tex. I don't have to worry about job security," he said.

Meanwhile Cross has established an ambitious agenda for an agency that is often accused of being slow to act. His goals include increasing the agency's emphasis on preventing contamination from happening in the first place, rather than just detecting the problem at some later stage in the cycle. "We want to establish preventive standards," he said. "And we are taking this all the way to the farm level. I see the system as one that extends from the farm to (the consumer's) dinner table."

Cross also promises an open-door policy for those involved with FSIS issues. "There will be no games and no hidden agendas . . . We will listen, not always agree, but we will listen." Is it really possible for the FSIS Administrator to effect change in established USDA policies?

"We will find out in the next few months," said Cross. "I'm not naive. I know this is an election year but I am truly committed to doing what is possible and what needs to be done."

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