An ambitious Agriculture Department proposal to modernize the nation's meat and poultry inspection system, which includes mandatory laboratory testing for contamination and detailed record keeping requirements, will significantly increase the responsibilities required of slaughter and processing companies--if it passes Congressional scrutiny.
The proposal arrives at a time when the Republican-controlled Congress is calling for a moratorium on all new federal regulations. It seems USDA couldn't have picked a worse political climate in which to fix a system that many consumers, government officials and even industry leaders say is outdated.
But even with the current anti-regulatory fervor, the USDA official who has to sell the proposal to Congress and the industry is optimistic.
"There are not that many issues in this country that touch people more directly than food safety," Michael R. Taylor, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said last week in an interview at The Times. "The industry should understand that if the new political environment is being used to lessen food safety, then the public just wouldn't accept that. Maintaining public confidence in the food supply is critical. . . . This is a critical juncture."
Taylor, a rising star in Washington and a Republican appointee in a Democratic administration, was FDA deputy commissioner for policy before he came to the FSIS six months ago. He emphasized that the proposed regulations complement--but do not replace--the current $500 million-a-year system that relies on inspectors' sight, touch and smell to detect disease and fecal contamination in animals and fowl. There are estimates that the cost of implementing the new plan over the first three years will be more than $730 million.
"The proposal will go beyond where we are and impose requirements that target and reduce harmful bacteria that are present in meat and poultry," he said. "We are turning the corner and holding companies accountable for doing their jobs."
The reform of the meat inspection program is the first since its inception at the turn of the century. The cornerstone of the USDA's hoped-for modernization is Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points or HACCP. Developed by the food industry, HACCP targets problems in production--such as potential points of microbiological contamination--and designs systems to prevent the mishaps from occurring. Each federally inspected company will be required to devise, and get USDA approval, of its own HACCP program, based on federal guidelines.
A second, unprecedented component of the proposal is to require processors to reduce current levels of contamination in raw meats and poultry. The USDA has selected salmonella as the target organism.
"Salmonella is the No. 1 cause of food-borne illnesses in the country. It cuts across all the major species and we have good analytical methods for detecting salmonella," he said. "And measures that could prevent salmonella will also help prevent other pathogens."
A recent government report indicates that there are at least 7 million cases of food-borne illness each year in this country and up to 7,000 deaths. More than 70% of food poisonings and deaths, according to USDA, may be associated with meat and poultry products. USDA officials concede, however, that their estimates are low and that the actual number of illnesses could be several times higher.
Initially, the department will require that companies reduce levels of the harmful bacteria to fewer than 25% of the uncooked product leaving plants. The new standards would permit salmonella on one out of every four raw meat or poultry items. Taylor said USDA arrived at the 25% contamination figure after an extensive survey of the poultry industry to determine the organism's prevalence.
"HACCP alone is not adequate," Taylor said. "What is lacking in the current system is any objective performance standard or goal (for processors to meet). . . . Individual companies can and do reduce the contamination rate to single-digit levels. That is achievable today."
The 276-page proposal is currently in its public comment stage, which is scheduled to conclude on June 5. After reviewing responses to the document, USDA will issue a final proposal by late 1995, barring Congressional or legal intervention. Once it is finalized, processors will then have 90 days to implement the testing program for microbiological contaminants. Other aspects of the plan will be phased in over three years.
Taylor said the food industry generally supports the USDA proposal.
"There is no fundamental resistance," he said. "I don't see them going through the back door (to Congress) to stop this."
Yet a few major industry trade groups are on record as having serious reservations about some aspects of meat and poultry inspection reform.