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Scientists Sought to Reverse "Deterioration of Food Safety"

April 15, 1993|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nation's largest association of public health officials is calling on the Clinton Administration to appoint a panel of scientists to review and reverse what it calls "the deterioration of our food safety."

The Washington-based American Public Health Assn. recently petitioned President Clinton to completely examine the meat and poultry inspection process in light of the 500 illnesses and two deaths related to an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 on the Pacific Coast.

It's the position of the APHA, comprised of about 50,000 members in all health disciplines--nurses, physicians, social workers, environmental specialists and educators--that the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak could have been prevented.

"We find it totally unacceptable that, according to a recent study, the E. coli bacteria contaminates over 3% of the raw ground beef sold at supermarket counters," William H. McBeath MD, APHA executive director, wrote in a letter to President Clinton. "It is imperative that the health of our nation's citizens should be protected from these avoidable perils."

APHA also questions whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the proper agency to be entrusted with meat inspection. At its annual meeting in October, the group will consider a resolution that describes what it calls a philosophical "conflict of interest" within USDA because the department is chartered with the sometimes contradictory aims of promoting agriculture as well as ensuring consumer food protection. APHA says any review of meat inspection must consider which federal agency is best equipped to operate such a program.

Consumer groups and many in Congress have also questioned whether USDA should have a role in public health issues such as food safety. But previous efforts to transfer programs, such as meat inspection, from the Agriculture Department have been unsuccessful.

"We have a continuing concern about the issues and the capacities of the agencies, such as USDA, involved in food safety," says Katherine McCarter, APHA associate executive director. "In developing future standards, the federal government needs more public health expertise and perspective on these regulations."

USDA officials say they are now working on major reforms of the meat inspection program and are open to "any and all suggestions," according to Steve Kinsella, press secretary for USDA Secretary Mike Espy. For instance, he says, $8 million have been added to USDA's budget to begin a pathogen reduction strategy.

Kinsella also announced that Espy intends to shortly convene a round-table discussion in Washington on food safety issues similar to the Clinton Administration's recent summit on Pacific Coast lumber policies.

The continuing criticism of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has led numerous sources, who have requested anonymity, to state that H. Russell Cross, the agency's administrator, will be replaced. While Cross has been in his position only a little more than a year, he is a holdover from the Bush Administration and is likely to shoulder the blame for the agency's handling of the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak linked to ground beef.

Kinsella, however, says that he had not heard of any specific plans to change the FSIS administrator.

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