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The Beef With Chicken : Regulation: Do chicken producers have an easier time than meat producers under Clinton's USDA? A USDA- commissioned study says yes; a USDA spokesperson says no.

March 24, 1994|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal slaughter and processing regulations give preferential treatment--and a potential economic advantage--to chicken producers over beef processors, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year. The study was never released to the public, but The Times has acquired an analysis and summary of the report.

The most serious discrepancy found by the Research Triangle Institute involves rules for dealing with visible contamination on carcasses.

If poultry is contaminated with feces as a result of improper evisceration or other errors, then it can be remedied by washing the bird or trimming off the problem section. In reality, poultry companies usually opt to wash the fecal matter because it is more cost effective. By comparison, red meat similarly contaminated must be trimmed; there is no option of washing. The study says that this leads to loss of product and time for red meat processors.

While the disparity has been institutionalized for years, it has caused a great deal of controversy at the USDA in the last week.

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Several news reports have suggested that the department is overly sensitive to the interests of chicken producers because of President Clinton's close relationship to Don Tyson, owner of Arkansas-based Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest chicken processor.

USDA officials deny favoring the poultry industry and say they inherited the differing regulations from previous presidential administrations. But critics charge that USDA has been slow to institute changes that would equalize the way both the red meat and poultry industries deal with fecal contamination of carcasses.

A year ago the USDA, under recently confirmed Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, was grappling with a food poisoning outbreak linked to contaminated, undercooked ground beef. As part of its response, a memo was circulated throughout the department instructing meat inspectors to strictly enforce a "zero tolerance" regulation for any fecal matter on beef carcasses. In other words, inspectors were told to cut away any such visible contamination.

However, in March, 1993, officials at USDA's Food Safety and Inspection System were instructed to discontinue formulating a similar zero tolerance policy for poultry, according to H. Russell Cross, FSIS administrator at the time and now a Texas A&M animal science professor.

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In an April, 1993 memo acquired by The Times, Cross wrote to Kim Schnoor, USDA chief counsel, stating, "You and Ron (Blackley, USDA chief of staff at the time) requested that (FSIS) take no further action on a policy for fecal tolerance for poultry until you had time to review this background information."

Cross, in an interview with The Times, said his agency did not receive authority from Secretary Espy's office to proceed with the zero tolerance regulations for poultry until December, 1993. It was not until just two weeks ago that even a preliminary proposal was announced by USDA.

"We were never given an explanation for this (delay)," Cross said.

USDA spokeswoman Mary Dixon said there were neither official nor unofficial attempts to delay formulation of a zero tolerance policy for poultry in 1993 and that FSIS employees were working on the regulation throughout the year.

"When it comes to the issue of zero tolerance, Russell Cross and (former FSIS Deputy Administrator) Wilson Horne have zero credibility," Dixon said. "We had to force (them) to implement the zero tolerance policy for red meat, a policy that had been law for years."

(Cross left FSIS in February after completing a two-year contract with the agency. Horne, who has also been outspoken on the issue, recently retired.)

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"In no way did any of the aides to Secretary Espy slow down a zero tolerance policy for poultry," Dixon continued. "As a matter of fact, when we came into office there was no zero tolerance policy for poultry. We had to develop one and one was developed and announced on March 9, 1994.

"We strongly believe we inherited a (meat inspection) system that was left to stagnate and facts show that we are trying to move it forward."

The difference between meat and poultry inspections dates back to 1978 when USDA officials allowed chicken processors the option of trimming, washing or vacuuming fecal matter from carcasses rather than forcing inspectors to simply remove all visible contamination.

The zero tolerance for trimming beef carcasses was always law but not strictly enforced until the outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 in hamburgers last year.

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As reported last week, USDA announced earlier this month that it would alter, but not completely change, the more lenient 1978 regulation for chicken. Under the preliminary proposal, federal inspectors will have the authority to send birds with visible fecal contamination back for a separate washing or reprocessing prior to continuing down the production line. After each carcass is rewashed, USDA personnel will determine whether the extra rinse was effective in removing fecal matter. If ineffective, then the bird is destroyed.

The rewashing, critics complain, amounts to a second chance for poultry plants to properly process a bird. They argue that the same zero tolerance regulation for beef should apply to chicken as well.

USDA's Dixon said the zero tolerance for chicken proposal will be completed in "the near future," though with time for public comment and USDA review, the entire process can take more than six months.

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