Tainted food spurs action Agencies strengthen safety inspections for meat and produce

Illnesses create alarm

$71 million budgeted to update procedures and monitor imports


WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration, responding to public alarm over the safety of meat and produce, will propose a significant increase in spending for food inspection and safety research in the budget to be presented to Congress early next year, administration officials say.

After a year that saw outbreaks of food-borne illnesses from tainted Guatemalan raspberries, Louisiana oysters and Midwestern ground beef, President Clinton is seeking an additional $71 million for food safety programs at the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The proposed increases would continue a four-year trend of devoting additional money to food safety. The increase, to $817 million for all federal programs, represents a 9 percent increase in a year when the overall federal budget will grow 1 percent.

The proposal is in the budget for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.

Spending on food safety has increased more than 60 percent since Clinton took office in 1993.

"What we are trying to do is take the agencies that deal with food inspection from the 19th century to the 21st century," said a senior White House official, who insisted on anonymity because he was discussing figures that will not be officially released until February.

"We are carrying out the first update of our food safety programs

in 90 years."

Critics say the government is belatedly addressing a problem that has been growing worse for years because of an explosion of imported fruits and vegetables and lax enforcement of existing laws governing hygiene at feedlots, slaughterhouses and packinghouses.

Inspectors are overwhelmed by the volume of imports and resources are stretched thin for inspecting tens of thousands of processing centers, the critics say.

"It is good that they are funding new inspectors for overseas, but they haven't begun to grapple with the fact that they need new inspectors for domestic produce and seafood," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group.

"The money for the FDA, in particular, is minimal and really a drop in the bucket compared to what they really need to improve the FDA's food program."

Administration officials responded that Congress trimmed spending for FDA food inspectors in budget negotiations in the fall and that the new money would help bring the inspection staff up to authorized levels.

The number of inspectors at the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service dropped to 7,500 at the beginning of 1997 from 12,000 in 1978. The Food and Drug Administration entered the current year with fewer than 700 inspectors.

Last year, Clinton announced the most sweeping changes in meat inspection since the government created the system at the beginning of the century, when Upton Sinclair chronicled abuses in "The Jungle." The new rules called for replacing old "poke and sniff" inspections with scientifically based tests.

This year, the president proposed a broad initiative that combines aggressive inspection with new tools to detect outbreaks of food-borne illnesses before they become widespread.

Pathogens carried in food are responsible for up to 30 million cases of illness and 9,000 deaths a year, officials report. The problem was dramatized in 1993 by the deaths of four children in the Northwest from eating undercooked Jack-in-the-Box hamburgers contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

This year, a major processor recalled 25 million pounds of hamburger after 17 people in Colorado got food poisoning from meat tainted with E. coli.

No amount of federal inspection, of course, can prevent food from becoming tainted in the home if it is not properly refrigerated or is otherwise mishandled.

Under the administration spending plan, $41 million would go to the Agriculture Department to improve testing of meat and poultry for unseen contaminants such as E. coli and salmonella, bringing the department's total spending on food inspection to $647 million in 1999. Inspectors would begin to use new scientific tools to detect pathogens in meat.

The department would also provide educational material to the elderly, who have the highest risk of illness from food-borne bacteria, and to workers in school cafeterias.

Thousands of children become sick each year from poor handling of food in school lunches.

Food inspection at the Food and Drug Administration would receive a $25 million increase, to $150 million, mostly for surveillance of imported fruits and vegetables, a growing source

of contaminants. Though food imports to the United States have doubled in the past decade, FDA inspections of imports have fallen by more than half.

Officials said the additional money would add up to 100 new inspectors, who would be sent to examine farming overseas, including the use of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as safety systems.

The proposal would also add $5 million for the CDC to hire scientists and buy equipment to detect food-borne diseases.

The increase would put the agency's food-safety budget at $20 million.

"The idea is to target resources to the areas of highest risk -- children, the elderly -- and to try to identify the critical points where contamination can occur," an administration official said.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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