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NEWS : Agriculture Chief Taking Tougher Stance on Regulation


Fresh from a major Congressional victory over a proposed amendment that could have killed long-awaited meat inspection reform, newly installed Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman says that the days when the food industry could dictate--or unduly influence--meat inspection regulations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are over.

"There ought to be a little bit of an adversarial relationship between the USDA and industry," Glickman said last week in an interview with The Times during a trip to Los Angeles.

Drawing a comparison with the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines, he said: "When the FAA comes in to inspect airplane engines they don't say, 'Please may we see your turbine blades?' They just make sure that someone is looking at them."

The USDA has been criticized for its perceived cozy relationship with the meat and poultry industries. Glickman's comments appear to mark a philosophical departure from his predecessors.

The USDA is on the verge of the most significant reform of the nation's meat and poultry inspection system since its inception in 1906. The core of the changes involve introducing mandatory laboratory testing and other science-based methods to prevent, detect and destroy harmful organisms that may be present on animal carcasses.

Several major trade associations have complained that the USDA is not sufficiently attentive to their views and comments on the proposals.

The meat industry, Glickman said, has historically played a major role in formulating government regulations related to its products. But times have changed, especially in light of the growing threat from potentially hazardous bacteria in meat and poultry.

"Some people [in the industry] felt that they had a lot more of a role in USDA regulation-making in the past than today. And in the old days, they did," he said. "They ought to have something to do with it [but remember] they are [the ones being] regulated. [This time] maybe they weren't as involved in writing [regulations] as they once were and they felt uncomfortable with the relationship."

The tensions between Glickman's USDA and the meat industry spilled over into Congress. Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.) introduced legislation that would have essentially killed the USDA's attempt to modernize meat inspection.

Glickman, a former nine-term Democratic Congressman from Kansas, brokered a compromise that persuaded Walsh to withdraw his resolution before it was considered by the full House.

Glickman says no major concessions were made. A simple promise to keep an "open mind" about food industry viewpoints was enough to prevent the House Republican-led effort to stall reform.

The USDA is scheduling additional public hearings on the reform package besides the one set for this month--before a final regulation is issued later this year.

"Walsh needed something from me to feel like I was willing to keep an open mind and listen to their concerns and that is all we did," said Glickman, who has been Agriculture Secretary for less than four months.

"We didn't change the timetables [to implement inspection reform], he said, "and are still trying to get a rule out by the end of the year."

A joint statement by 16 food industry trade associations declared that Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points should replace the old inspection system and commended Glickman and Walsh for "achieving an agreement."

"Given the magnitude of reform needed in the current meat and poultry inspection system, it is critical that all parties be heard equally and that all policy decisions be based on science, not politics," added the statement by, among others, the American Meat Institute and the National Meat Assn.

Consumer groups, which had lobbied heavily against the Walsh amendment, reacted less magnanimously.

Safe Tables Our Priority, an Escondido, Calif.-based group, stated: "In a resounding victory for public health and an unmasking of the good ol' boy politics, Rep. Walsh's amendment was defeated in the court of public opinion. . . . Obstructive trade associations invested enormous political efforts on this ill-conceived attempt to delay and disembowel meat and poultry reforms."

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