Clinton seeks to modernize detection of dangerous bacteria in meat, poultry

March 17, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Prompted by deaths in the Northwest from contaminated hamburger, the Clinton administration proposed yesterday to overhaul the nation's meat-inspection system to protect against a public health threat that has worsened in recent years: dangerous bacteria in meat and poultry.

The administration's proposal, which was announced at a hearing of a House Agriculture subcommittee, would completely change the basis for safeguarding the meat supply, by enlisting advanced scientific techniques and monitoring equipment to discover invisible and very dangerous microbes.

Inspectors now check for tainted meat in most cases simply by looking for discoloration or feeling for disease.

The microbes, which have been appearing in meat and poultry with increasing frequency, are responsible for killing 150 people and causing 150,000 serious illnesses in the last decade, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The high toll has put bacterial contamination in meat at the top of the list of public health threats in the food supply, the centers said, far ahead of the risks posed by traces of pesticides or animal drugs that are found in food.

Last month, President Clinton called for increasing the number of inspectors to 7,510, from 7,350. It was not clear whether yesterday's proposals would add even more inspectors.

Agriculture officials would not provide any estimate of how much the new inspection system would cost.

"We can't inspect meat in 1993 the same way we inspected it in 1933," said Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who traveled to the Pacific Northwest earlier this year to investigate the bacterial contamination, which killed three children and caused 500 illnesses.

"We have to change to a system not based on sight and touch but one based on microbiology," he said. "And while we are making this change, we also have to make sure that the system we use presently assures the public that we are detecting all we can see in meat and that the food supply is safe."

Under the administration's plan, inspectors in slaughterhouses would use the most modern biological tools to search for bacterial contamination in equipment.

They are also likely to put less emphasis on visually inspecting each of the 81 million pigs, 30 million cattle and 6.6 billion chickens that roll off slaughter lines each year. The proposal would not apply to inspections of fish.

Under the plan, scientists and some federal inspectors would also be temporarily stationed on farms and feedlots, for the first time, to collect data and determine whether modern mass-production techniques are tainting the meat supply with bacteria.

The results of the research could compel the government to permanently station inspectors on farms.

In addition, the plan calls for new research programs to develop quicker tests for discovering dangerous bacteria in meat and equipment, more careful processing of meat to eliminate contamination and mandatory safety labels to teach restaurants and home cooks how to safely handle meat.

One aspect of the plan that is almost certain to cause a public dispute is the administration's call for expanding the use of radiation to kill pathogens in meat.

Such technology, while declared safe by many scientists, has met resistance from consumer groups that believe radiation is unfit for use in preserving or disinfecting food.

The Clinton plan would affect every level of the nation's $80 billion beef, pork and poultry production and distribution system, from the farm to the kitchen.

Meat processors, along with cattle, swine and poultry producers yesterday said they were concerned about the reputation of their products after the poisonings in the Northwest and would support the changes.

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