WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy acknowledged Wednesday that the nation's meat and poultry supply has serious contamination problems that are far from solved.
Espy insisted that the Agriculture Department's meat inspection system is better than the one he inherited 19 months ago and that the department is making progress fighting the growing threat from potentially harmful bacteria.
Even so, he agreed with a scientific group's recent claim that bacterial contamination is a "time bomb" waiting to explode into human illness.
"That's not an overstatement because the bomb has already gone off with the deaths from E. coli (linked to contaminated ground meat) in Washington state, New Jersey, Texas and elsewhere, as many as 360 each year," he said. "We are trying to disassemble the bomb but we have a way to go before declaring victory."
Espy granted a series of interviews Wednesday, apparently as part of a public relations offensive meant to counter recent news stories alleging a possible conflict of interest because of his relationship with Arkansas-based Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's leading poultry producer.
The Justice Department is considering the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Espy's acceptance of travel and entertainment from Tyson at a time when the Agriculture Department was considering tough new regulations for chicken processors. The agriculture secretary later reimbursed Tyson.
"I am not the issue and have not done anything wrong," he said. "And I can't wait to prove it. If Tyson had been a Massachusetts-based company then Mike Espy would not be having these problems. There is an obsession with the President's connections in Arkansas and everything is seized upon."
Espy said improving the food safety system has been his priority.
Espy said his critics come from all quarters: the food industry, the consumer advocacy movement and within the USDA bureaucracy.
"We have gone too far for some and not far enough for others," he said.
Espy was critical of former agriculture officials who, he said, knew about the danger of the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria in ground meat since the early 1980s and did nothing about it. The nation's largest outbreak of E. coli erupted on the Pacific Coast in January, 1993, with more than 500 illnesses and four deaths. Washington state health officials alerted Espy's department about the unfolding outbreak on his third day as secretary.
Since then, Espy said, the government has launched 70 initiatives to improve the safety of meat and poultry.
Among the measures are an increase in the number of inspectors, enforcement of the longstanding zero-tolerance standard for feces on beef carcasses, development of a similar zero tolerance regulation for poultry and introduction of mandatory safe handling instructions for consumers on packages of all raw meats and poultry.
Yet, the long-term threat from contamination will not be stemmed by simple changes in an inspection system that still relies on sight, touch and smell. Harmful bacteria are microscopic and can only be detected through time-consuming laboratory tests now beyond the government's capability.
In fact, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, in a report on changes at Espy's department, said the recent efforts have "neither dealt with the inspection system's inherent weaknesses nor fundamentally changed the system's reliance on sensory inspection methods." The department is only "marginally better" at protecting the public from bacteria, the report said.
Espy said the department is experimenting with a new rapid testing method for beef that would allow inspectors to determine the overall presence of bacteria on carcasses before they enter retail channels. A similar procedure for poultry is also being developed.
Congressional hearings next week will consider the Agriculture Department's request for the authority to recall suspected contaminated meat and poultry. The department now must rely on the goodwill of firms for such recalls. Espy said he also wants authority to require ranch, feedlot, slaughter and processing facilities to maintain detailed records so problem carcasses can be traced.