Keeping meat safe

March 18, 1993

When the federal government set up its meat inspection program in 1906, inspectors worried about problems they could see and feel and smell -- sick animals coming into the slaughter house, unsanitary conditions in the packing plant, discolored or rotten meat. Today those dangers have largely been eliminated, but the inspection system has not kept pace.

In January, the nation was rudely reminded that it cannot take a safe food supply for granted when tainted hamburgers served at a chain of fast food restaurants in Washington state killed three children and sickened almost 500 other people. According to the Centers for Disease Control, toxic microbes in meat and poultry have caused 150,000 serious illnesses and 150 deaths over the past decade, making contaminated meat the leading public health threat in the food supply.

After the Washington state outbreak, President Clinton requested that 160 more meat inspectors be hired this year. And on Tuesday, the administration unveiled proposals to update inspection methods for an increasingly technologized food production system. Instead of the old-fashioned visual methods, inspectors will enlist technology to check for dangerous microbes. Scientists and inspectors will be sent to farms to examine whether mass production methods increase the dangers of contamination, and the Agriculture Department will intensify its research on how bacteria spread during the slaughter of animals.

There will be tighter safety controls at slaughter and meat processing plants, including revisions in methods of handling beef to reduce contamination from feces and the use of more veterinarians to monitor slaughtering. Labeling and public education will also play a role, since cooking at proper temperatures can destroy dangerous bacteria.

Most of the proposals have widespread support -- after all, everyone, including producers, has a stake in a healthy food supply. But at least one suggestion, a recommendation to expand the use of radiation to kill bacteria in meat, is expected to arouse consumer opposition, despite a number of studies showing the process has no ill effects. Even so, the issue is worth a debate.

Ensuring a safe food supply is a proper and essential function of government. The steps proposed this week by the Agriculture Department are overdue. But they go a long way toward modernizing a system that has fallen dangerously behind the times.

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