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Meat Inspection: The $100-Million Question


Agriculture Department officials concede that the current meat inspection system is seriously flawed, scientifically outdated and may not be modernized for years.

In testimony before a joint hearing of two House Agriculture subcommittees last week, officials outlined plans to prevent a recurrence of January's deadly outbreak linked to contaminated beef. Unfortunately, the changes proposed by USDA in the $500-million program require additional federal funding, Congressional approval and new breakthroughs in scientific research.

The current system's failings, as outlined include:

* No rapid, on-site tests are available to detect the presence of any harmful bacteria that may be present in meat and poultry in slaughter or processing plants. For instance, it takes at least six days for an independent laboratory to determine whether E. coli 0157:H7, the bacteria that caused the recent food poisoning incident, is present in beef. Fresh meat cannot be held that long before entering retail channels. There are also no tests to determine the existence of infection on animals prior to slaughter.

* There is little or no scientific information on how many bacterium are necessary to cause illness in healthy adults. Even less is known about the infectious doses of organisms for high risk groups.

* No records are required to identify the origin of animal carcasses. This omission is the principal reason that the farm or ranch source of the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak may never be known.

* Prior to a March 4 memorandum from USDA's Washington headquarters, inspectors were permitted to allow noticeable amounts of fecal contamination on beef carcasses shipped from plants. The department now says that it will maintain a zero tolerance for fecal, ingesta or milk contamination of carcasses.

* A "special review" of beef slaughter plants is needed to identify those "plants that may be failing to consistently produce clean, unadulterated products." The review is unusual considering that there are already more than 7,000 USDA meat inspectors in place in slaughter and processing plants throughout the nation.

While the USDA's proposals received praise from a number of groups, the Safe Food Coalition, an alliance of several other advocacy organizations such as Consumers Union, called the department's plan "seriously flawed." The coalition said the USDA failed to solicit input from the public and was being too attentive to meat industry needs. "If the agency insists on hearing only from the industry groups that have controlled inspection policy for the last 12 years, it is unlikely that meat and poultry inspection will be revised in a way that addresses the basic flaws that led to the Washington state E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak," coalition members wrote in a letter sent Monday to USDA Secretary Mike Espy.

H. Russell Cross, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said: "We cannot just abruptly stop operating our current inspection system because we know it must be improved. Perhaps radical changes will be developed over the next several years. But in the meantime we have to be sure the current system does what it can do well."

The coalition was also critical of the fact that the government has yet to address the issue of how animals become infected with pathogens in the first place.

The difficulties in improving the meat inspection system were made clear in a recent study by an association of food scientists. A special report issued earlier this month by the Institute of Food Technologists found a glaring need for more comprehensive scientific data about food-borne illnesses and estimated that $100 million was needed over five years to modernize the federal government's approach to food safety. The study concedes that no new governmental funding is forthcoming.

The report estimates that the annual cost of food-borne illnesses to the United States economy, in terms of medical care, lost productivity and wages, is $5 billion or more a year.

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