Improvements in meat safety New regulations: Clinton acts to institute long-overdue scientific testing.

July 12, 1996

IN JANUARY 1993, the same month Bill Clinton became president, three children died after eating hamburgers at a fast-food outlet and some 500 persons became ill from ingesting the virulent E. coli 0157: H7 bacterium. The national outcry drew promises that the new administration would do something. Now, after an early false start, the president has announced the most significant changes in meat inspection rules in 90 years.

Though understandably skeptical, Americans can take comfort that even some consumer-watchdog groups have welcomed this initiative. Instead of relying on the old sniff and touch technique in meat and poultry processing, the industry and the government will be required to rely on far more scientific testing for E. coli, salmonella and similar contaminants.

This should not be taken as a green light to munch on very rare hamburgers. What you buy at the supermarket will likely contain levels of bacteria that can be eliminated only through proper cooking and food handling in the home. The pre-election changes heralded by Mr. Clinton will not take effect instantaneously and, in any event, will not be fool-proof.

Nevertheless, the new regulations set high standards for cooperation between an industry anxious to preserve a reputation for safety and government inspectors relying on modern techniques. They will be required to identify points in the meat and poultry process that are most vulnerable to the introduction of hazardous bacteria. Processors will be responsible for testing for E. coli, the government for salmonella. Only time will determine if the industry should be forced to do both.

It is a shame that it took a national tragedy to overcome bureaucratic stonewalling, outcries against "over-regulation" and industry defense of the status quo to implement overdue improvements. But this is nothing new.

Congress passed the landmark Meat Inspection Act in 1906 only after a sensationalist novel by Upton Sinclar, "The Jungle," depicted sickening practices in slaughterhouses. A decade earlier, to preserve markets overseas, meat inspection had been imposed on exports. The 1906 law extended this to interstate commerce. The wonder of it all is that only minor governmental adjustments have been made since.

The cost to the taxpayer of Mr. Clinton's new order has been estimated at only $80 million a year -- about one-tenth of a cent per pound of product -- while savings in medical expenses are pegged at $1 billion to $4 billion a year.

A good deal, on the surface, to insure a food supply as safe as the American public has a right to expect. But in the end, consumers have to protect themselves in their own kitchens.

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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