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New Meat Labeling Signals USDA About-Face

August 19, 1993|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an unprecedented announcement that the "American people need immediate protection" from potentially harmful bacteria in food, Agriculture Department officials last week mandated that all packages of uncooked meat and poultry carry instructions for proper storage, handling and cooking by Oct. 15 of this year.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said USDA, which operates the meat and poultry inspection program, was not abdicating its food safety responsibilities by requiring the meat industry to print the safe handling instructions. Nevertheless, he said, the department recognizes that consumers should be "armed (with the information) to protect themselves and their families (from food-borne bacteria)."

USDA also released a report backgrounding the new regulation and estimated that illness attributed to meat and poultry products cost the nation between $3.9 billion and $4.3 billion in annual economic losses due to medical costs, reduced productivity and lost wages.

The announcement is an abrupt change in USDA policy and is considered an extraordinary concession.

For years, department officials have publicly minimized the health threat posed by harmful bacteria that may be present in raw meats and poultry, insisting that any pathogens would be killed during the cooking process. In the past, USDA routinely debated consumer advocates and members of Congress who doubted the effectiveness of the nation's $500 million-a-year meat and poultry inspection program.

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The agency's position changed after a deadly outbreak of food poisoning earlier this year on the Pacific Coast that was linked to cooked ground beef. Subsequently, Espy and other top USDA officials have conceded that the current meat inspection program, with its 9,000 employees, is inadequate to combat the modern-day threat from harmful bacteria.

The USDA proposal stops short of any warning language but it is worded more strongly than labels on other food products. It states, in part, "Some animal products may contain bacteria that could cause illness if the product is mishandled or cooked improperly." The directions must appear on packaging intended for restaurants and other commercial food service operations such as hospitals as well as on products for consumers. USDA's regulation, which will undergo an expedited 30-day comment period, applies to both fresh and frozen products. Partially cooked meats must also carry the government-specified directions.

The food industry, which has resisted such guidelines in the past by stating that the mere presence of the wording might unnecessarily alarm consumers, gave tepid endorsements to the plan. Consumer groups cautioned that the government's proposed wording was not forceful enough to change poor food handling practices and urged that stronger language be chosen.

"The (USDA label) covers only a small segment of the total food supply," said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based trade association. "We think this is a step in the right direction, but consumers need to learn about safe handling of all foods."

Boyle said he thought his industry was being unfairly singled out by the USDA because meat and poultry products represent "only one-fourth of reported outbreaks of food-borne illnesses." The Oct. 15 deadline is also unrealistic, he said, because the labels need to be designed, printed and distributed throughout the food chain.

Left unsettled in the uncharacteristically hasty action by USDA is whether the new label requirements are the result of innovative public health policy or legal action taken against the government by Beyond Beef, a anti-meat coalition.

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The activist group filed suit against USDA in February, seeking a warning label on all raw meats that would direct consumers to properly cook the products because of the risk of "serious illness and death" from bacterial contaminants. The case was dismissed. But as part of the ruling, a federal judge ordered USDA to propose some kind of meat labeling by Aug. 15. USDA issued its proposal on Aug. 11.

"The USDA would never have the audacity to put a label on meat or poultry without being forced to by a court order, and that is the bottom line," said Jeremy Rifkin, president of Beyond Beef. "There has never been an example of a federal agency voluntarily taking the leadership to place restrictions on the food industry. They have to be pushed."

Rifkin said that last week's action by USDA is insufficient and that his group will return to federal court to force additional language on the package labeling. Primarily, his group will petition for the inclusion of the word warning to precede any other directions.

"This label has to say 'warning,' or people will not give it proper attention," he said.

A USDA spokeswoman said there is little likelihood that the current proposal will be changed to include a warning.

"Beyond Beef is against beef and they have their own agenda," said Mary Dixon, USDA deputy press secretary. "(Agriculture Secretary) Espy is being realistic and is saying that people are going to eat beef in American and this statement protects the consumer."

Dixon also said that Espy publicly proposed that raw meat and poultry carry cooking and handling instructions in January, at the height of the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak linked to hamburgers.

"Beyond Beef is saying that their lawsuit prompted these labels and that is not true. Secretary Espy announced the need for labels on Jan. 22, and Beyond Beef did not file their lawsuit until Feb. 10," she said.

Public comments on the labeling announcement should be sent to: Policy Office, FSIS Hearing Clerk, Room 3171, South Agriculture Building, FSIS, USDA, Washington, D.C. 20250. Refer to Docket No. 93-0121 in commenting on the regulation.

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