The Muddle in Meat Inspection

June 22, 1994|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Experience shows that the chance of encountering a fatally contaminated hamburger is mercifully small for even the most unrestrained fast-food consumer.

But every year millions of people are seriously sickened by meat and poultry passed by the Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, and now and then a few of them die.

Science has moved ahead considerably since 1906, when Upton Sinclair published ''The Jungle,'' a stomach-turning novel about the meat-packing industry. In 1907, Congress responded by passing the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which says that federal inspectors must examine and approve each animal prior to entry into the slaughterhouse and each carcass before it goes to market.

Based on the best scientific understanding of the time, the prescribed inspections consisted of peering and poking for diseased tissue and other signs of danger. When this system went into effectnearly a century ago, neither microscopic studies nor biological tests were called for.

Eighty-seven years later, the process remains based on the same methods of inspection -- oblivious of the fact that the most dangerous contaminants of meat and poultry, Salmonella and Escherichia coli, are invisible to the naked eye.

But even to the extent that visual inspection is useful, the inspectors have been overwhelmed by the increase in production, particularly of poultry. Federal poultry inspectors on today's fast-moving production lines have about two seconds to visually examine each bird and feel the eviscerated organs. But the poultry industry is forecasting producing some 8.3 billion birds by 1997. With a strict lid on federal hiring, the inspection staff simply can't keep up with the swelling workload.

As an alternative to the antiquated system of meat and poultry inspection, the Department of Agriculture is promoting a preventive program. The basic idea is to identify and correct potential problems rather than just look for contaminated carcasses.

A preventive system would be a big step forward, but an eve bigger one would be inspection for microbial contamination, the main source of risk in meat products. Yet that's not on the agenda at the Department of Agriculture because the tests require 24 hours to produce results and the department is reluctant to burden poultry producers with a cumbersome delay in the production process.

Meanwhile, meat and poultry, though overwhelmingly wholesome, are making a lot of people sick. Since only the most serious cases tend to be reported, the full extent of the problem is unknown. Estimates of the number of illness vary from 6.5 million per year to 80 million. Whatever the number, it is not small. Whether anything serious is going to be done about it, however, is another matter.

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a Washington newsletter.

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