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Nation's Meat Is Found Safer

Health: Tests of ground beef show less contamination for the fourth straight year. But some fear Bush policies may reverse that trend.

April 21, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — For a fourth year in a row, the government is finding fewer germs in ground beef and other types of meat. Consumer advocates say Bush administration policies could reverse that trend.

Last year, 2.8% of ground beef tested positive for salmonella bacteria, compared with 3.3% in 2000 and 6.4% in 1998.

Late last year, however, the administration abandoned a court battle with the meat industry over the government's authority to close plants that repeatedly flunk tests for salmonella. An appeals court ruled in December that meat plants could not be required to meet the Agriculture Department's limits for salmonella.

The administration says it still has all the legal power needed to enforce meat safety standards. Consumer advocates disagree, and if the salmonella rates rise, they will point to the increase as proof they are right.

"Illness rates could go right back up as the Bush administration stops enforcing USDA's limits on salmonella in meat and poultry," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a public advocacy group.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week reported sharp drops in illnesses caused by six of seven major types of food-borne bacteria from 1996 to 2001, including salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter.

Elsa Murano, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food safety, says the administration is taking steps that should lower even more the rates of meat contamination and human illnesses.

The department has assigned special staff to work with plants on improving sanitation systems, and on Monday planned to announce new requirements for beef-grinding plants.

The facilities will be required to have at least one antimicrobial treatment for beef--or else buy their beef from a slaughterhouse that does. Most ground beef plants already meet the requirement, but a few do not, she said.

"This administration . . . is going forward and putting some teeth into food safety systems," Murano said.

The department long has credited its bacteria tests for the drop in salmonella levels on meat and poultry, but industry officials say the decline is because of improvements they have made in plant sanitation systems.

"We have enjoyed a substantial decline because there were indeed high numbers" of salmonella before, said Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the National Meat Assn.

The Agriculture Department's salmonella rules set limits on how often meat or poultry could test positive for salmonella. The meat industry says the limits, which are based on average contamination rates in the 1990s, are not scientifically based. It is not known how much of the bacteria it takes to make someone sick.

But Carol Tucker Foreman, who oversaw the department's food safety programs during the Carter administration, says the salmonella tests are a good indication of whether packinghouses are putting out clean meat.

The department at least should have asked Congress for a law guaranteeing the power to close plants that continually exceed the limits, she said.

"There is no evidence that the industry can't comply with [the limits]," said Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute.

More battles on food issues are looming.

The Agriculture Department has delayed rules proposed by the Clinton administration that would require makers of hot dogs, cold cuts and other ready-to-eat meat products to test plant equipment for Listeria monocytogenes. The meat industry wants the rules rewritten.

The department is doing a new analysis of the risk of listeria and the benefits of the proposed rules, Murano said.

On hold at the Food and Drug Administration are new rules for egg farms that are intended to reduce the incidence of salmonella.

The regulations were ready to be released to the public nearly a year ago, agency officials said at the time. Now an FDA spokeswoman will say only that the rules are "in the process of being developed."

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