News Maker : Mike Espy Fights Back
Facing an investigation by a special prosecutor, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy has changed tactics. Rather than reaching out to competing food industry and consumer groups, he recently lashed out at those he sees as trying to undermine his efforts to modernize the nation’s troubled meat and poultry inspection program. He also says that efforts to cut the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s massive budget and staff have been stymied as well.
The combativeness comes at a time when Attorney General Janet Reno has petitioned for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to determine whether Espy violated the Meat Inspection Act of 1907 when he accepted travel and entertainment from Tyson Foods, Inc., the nation’s largest poultry processor. Espy later reimbursed the company for the hospitality.
In an interview with The Times before Reno’s petition, Espy charged that former and present USDA officials resisted his directions to adopt scientific procedures for meat inspection, that opponents in the meat industry planted false stories in the media about his USDA tenure and that former USDA officials were complacent in the face of deaths linked to contaminated hamburger on the Pacific Coast in January, 1993.
During the interview, Espy directed his harshest comments at H. Russell Cross, the former Administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
“We had to change personnel to get where we are now,” he said. “I had to dismiss some people from the FSIS agency. . . . Let me state that more accurately: I decided not to extend the contract of a gentleman who used to be the administrator (Cross). We had several problems with his ability to carry forth the agenda of this Administration as it relates to food-borne (illnesses) and to meat and poultry inspection. He no longer works here. . . . And he has been very critical since he left here and even untruthful.”
Espy said Cross and Wilson Horne, a now-retired FSIS official, were among several USDA employees who were complacent in the face of illnesses and deaths attributed to contaminated hamburger in several Western states in January, 1993.
“I gathered the leadership of the Food Safety and Inspection Service . . . and I got the impression that they knew about these deaths and they weren’t excited. They considered the deaths acceptable,” Espy said.
Cross, currently director of the Institute for Food Science and Engineering at Texas A&M; University, would not respond to Espy’s comments.
Despite internal opposition, Espy said that the USDA was still able to launch 70 initiatives to improve the nation’s meat and poultry inspection program.
Some of the recent action, such as a pathogen reduction plan that was announced last week, has irked the food industry.
“We’ve been criticized by industry for going too far,” he said. “It is really ironic. . . . Last year they complimented me on how we intervened in the E. coli case and we were being roundly applauded by the industry for arresting what could have been a dangerous slide in consumer confidence in regard to (beef).
“And now, as we try to improve their products even more so--which would guarantee a greater confidence in the consumer sector--we are being criticized (by the same people). . . . When I say we have the safest food supply in the world . . . that part of what I say is what they like. But when I say it can be made safer still--that is what they don’t like.”
Espy said his critics in the food industry have been responsible for some of the negative press coverage he has received in recent months.
“In 19 months, we have clearly made food safer,” he said. “I stand without any fear of contradiction. But that has not come without (financial) costs to some people and to some industries. Some can accept it and some won’t accept it.
“We have made changes at the USDA in our personnel and in the attitude that we would like to instill in our personnel. Some don’t want to do that and some protest and some target me. They have connections with writers and they plant stories. There was a story that I had ordered the destruction of documents (related to proposed tough new regulations for chicken processors). This is the USDA, not the CIA. I guess we have a shredder in here somewhere but I have not used it nor ordered it used. That (story was) patently untrue. But (the allegation) causes an (FBI) investigation and so, perhaps, the investigation itself is the purpose. Hopefully, it won’t knock us off stride. I can’t let that happen.”
Espy also had harsh words for consumer groups.
“We’ve been criticized by the consumer side for not moving fast enough (on improving meat inspection),” he said. "(And the complaints) have come from people who worked in prior (Presidential) Administrations that didn’t do anything much (about the problems).”
Espy was referring primarily to Carol Tucker Foreman, president of the Safe Food Coalition in Washington and a former USDA Assistant Secretary in the Carter Administration, and Rod Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group and a former FSIS Administrator in the Johnson Administration. Foreman and Leonard have been the most persistent critics of USDA.
Despite Espy’s claim that the meat and poultry inspection program has improved in the past 19 months, a consumer group recently urged the public to avoid hamburgers altogether because of the presence of E. coli 0157:H7 in ground meat.
The Food Animal Concerns Trust, a Chicago-based advocacy group, said the risk of infection from E. coli 0157:H7 is increasing.
“There is no apparent way in current meat production and inspection to contain the spread of this new illness. Consumers, however, can do something now to reduce the risks: stop eating hamburgers,” Robert A. Brown, the group’s president, said last month.
Espy, however, said there was no reason for consumers to avoid hamburgers.
“All meat has germs. Always has and maybe always will,” he said. “I think that as a government agency, USDA has a responsibility to reduce the levels of contamination and to mandate a stringent approach to protect public health. When it comes to hamburger, I think that it is certainly an overstatement (to say, ‘Don’t eat hamburgers.’). I think hamburger in this country is generally safe to eat. Just because red meat has germs doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make you sick. Obviously, it is the kind of germs and the amount of germs in the meat itself. And that is exactly the approach we’ve taken and is exactly the approach that is necessary to reduce the amount of and likelihood of germs. . . .
“However, at the end of the food chain is the consumer himself and there is no substitute for thoroughly cooking your meat. And that doesn’t mean that relieves us of our responsibility of doing everything as a government to make sure that meat is safe. At the end of the food chain stands the consumer, and if that hamburger is cooked thoroughly there will not be a problem.”
Espy said that USDA will not have a laboratory test until January, 1995, to determine the presence of E. coli 0157:H7 in meat while the carcasses are still in the processing plant and well before meat is shipped to retail channels.
“It is fair to say that I am frustrated by the (pace of test deployment) but I’m also proud that the progress has been steady,” he said.
Espy expressed displeasure as well with the resistance to his plans to reorganize USDA.
“We are trying to downsize this department, which has 110,000 people in 14,000 offices throughout the country with a $71 billion budget. I’m saying that we have too many offices chasing too few farmers. I want to close 1,100 offices and reduce the Washington operations by 14 agencies,” he said. “We want to eliminate 7,500 positions here in Washington and we have hit our target already for this year. And I want to save $2.5 billion in taxpayers’ money. But some people don’t like it because they think career employment is a way of life here.”