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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE : HEALTH AND SAFETY

Hard to stomach

Our food supply watchdogs, the USDA and the FDA, are falling down on the job.

February 09, 2008

It was upsetting enough to hear that animals had been abused by slaughterhouse employees in Chino; far worse to think that a meat producer was willing to send beef from "downer" cattle into the food supply -- to public schools, no less. There always will be a certain number of bad operations looking to break the rules. But there's a government agency assigned to catch and stop them. Where was the U.S. Department of Agriculture?

The abuses at Hallmark Meat Packing were uncovered by the Humane Society of the United States, not by the USDA. And this isn't the first time it took outsiders to act on food issues. In 2003, a law firm successfully sued to force supermarkets to label the farmed salmon they sold as artificially colored; the Food and Drug Administration requires the labeling but admitted that it does not enforce the rule. More recently, a nonprofit public advocacy group and then the New York Times tested tuna sushi at restaurants and found levels of mercury that exceeded FDA standards.

Ten years ago, consumer watchdogs complained because the FDA was inspecting only about 2% of imported food. Now it's 1%. Too few FDA inspectors have been trying to stay on top of too many tainted products from China alone -- pet food, toothpaste, fish.

It's time for a little self-questioning alarm at the agencies that are supposed to ensure food quality. Instead, they show a disconcerting level of complacency. USDA officials are saying there's no evidence that beef from the sick animals at Hallmark Meat entered the food supply, though they can't say it didn't; and schools immediately stopped serving the meat. And even though it's illegal to process "downer" cattle for consumption because the symptoms can indicate mad cow disease, USDA Undersecretary Richard Raymond insisted that his agency "safeguards the safety and wholesomeness of our food supply." Not this time, apparently. It would be more reassuring to see USDA officials, instead of soothing the public, reacting with the same consternation that consumers feel.

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