U.S. meat inspection upgraded Clinton announces changes, including new tests for bacteria

Fatal illness sparked outcry

Federal inspectors to test for salmonella, processors for E. coli

July 07, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton announced yesterday the most sweeping changes in the government's meat inspection system since it was created nearly a century ago, outlining new rules that would, for the first time, impose scientific tests for disease-causing bacteria.

The new rules call for more inspection and controls by the meat- and poultry-processing industry itself and new testing by the Department of Agriculture.

Drafted over the past two years, the rules will be final upon their publication in the Federal Register this week.

They are to take effect in stages, some immediately and some over the next two to three years, officials said.

"These new meat and poultry contamination safeguards will be the strongest ever," Clinton said in his weekly radio address.

"Parents should know that when they serve a chicken dinner, they are not putting their children at risk," Clinton said.

Since the federal Meat Inspection Act was passed in 1907 -- after the publication of Upton Sinclair's muckraking expose of the industry, "The Jungle" -- inspectors have relied on the "sniff and poke method" to certify that carcasses are safe to eat as they pass along a conveyor belt.

But inspectors cannot always detect contaminated meat just by quickly smelling or looking for the obvious signs of decay.

The government had wanted processors to perform microbial tests for the presence of the deadly salmonella bacterium, which kills more than 4,000 people a year and sickens as many as 5 million, and for E. coli bacterium, which indicates fecal contamination and can be deadly in some forms.

But in a compromise, processors will test for E. coli, and federal inspectors will conduct tests for salmonella at various stages in the process.

Consumer groups have been pressing for change since a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria traced to under-cooked hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants killed several children in the Pacific Northwest in 1993 and sickened hundreds of others.

Yesterday, such groups joined industry representatives in praising the new rules.

"This rule is a landmark in improving meat and poultry safety," said Caroline Smith De Waal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group.

"While it may need some fine-tuning, nonetheless it provides the blueprint.

"They're giving more responsibility to the industry, while at the same time providing adequate government oversight."

Gary M. Weber, director of animal health and meat inspection for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, an industry group, said: "We're very pleased that after a 10-year struggle to redesign the meat inspection system, we're at the first stages of implementing a modern, scientific-based prevention system."

Inaugurating these new rules in an election year, the president gave credit to consumer groups, especially the parents of the young victims of the Pacific Northwest outbreak, who pressed for these changes.

"The parents of many of the E. coli victims turned their grief into a determination to help others," Clinton said.

"In the face of this unspeakable tragedy, they had one insistent question: How could this have happened?"

Under the new rules, packers and slaughterhouses will be bTC required to establish a system known as hazard analysis and critical control points, identifying each point and potential problem in the process -- such as cutting, grinding and overheating -- where contamination can occur and developing steps to prevent it.

The bacterial tests are intended to assure that the new safety steps work, officials said.

Companies will have as long as 42 months to set up hazard control systems, with smaller companies having the longest time to comply.

Eventually, plants will be required to reduce their salmonella contamination to below the prevailing national average for the type of meat they process.

For example, 20 percent of broiler chickens are contaminated with salmonella.

Within six months, companies will also have to set up new sanitation systems to ensure cleanliness.

Just months ago, when it became clear that the government would not require processors themselves to test for salmonella, consumer groups were sharply critical.

But they participated in negotiations over the final rules and now seem content to claim victory.

Smith De Waal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that even though the industry will not be required to conduct its own salmonella testing, companies will undoubtedly have to test for the bacteria as part of their efforts to prove their safety systems are effective.

"We didn't get everything we wanted," she said. "We wanted mandatory salmonella testing by industry.

"But we did get it wrapped into the initial validation work the industry will have to do."

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