NEWS ANALYSIS : White House Pushes for Meat Testing


Just about everyone with a stake in the effort to modernize the nation's meat and poultry inspection program has had a say on the issue, including consumer advocates, labor leaders, veterinarians, cattle ranchers, food processors, restaurateurs, grocers and animal rights activists.

But the toughest language yet comes from a most unlikely place for a food safety controversy: the White House.

In a recent Saturday radio address to the nation, President Clinton compared the Agriculture Department's approach to inspection to primitive methods used by scavenging animals.

"The federal government has been inspecting meat the same old way since the turn of the century," Clinton said. "Believe it or not, [USDA] inspectors basically use the same method to inspect meat that dogs use. They touch it and smell it to see if it's safe--instead of using microscopes and high technology. That's crazy."

The speech was, in part, a pitch for support of the Clinton Administration's proposal to reform the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. The agency employs an army of 7,000 inspectors who are present in all of the nation's slaughter and processing plants, ostensibly to ensure that animal carcasses are free of disease and other visual defects before entering consumer channels.

However, the greatest threat to the wholesomeness of meat and poultry comes from microscopic bacteria--such as E. coli and salmonella--that cannot be detected by the inspectors' current arsenal: human sight, smell and touch.

The Clinton reform proposal would require meat and poultry companies to adopt Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, a science-based system that identifies the major contamination threats in the processing chain and implements measures to prevent such problems.

"For the last two years, we have been working hard . . . to reform the meat inspection rules so that Americans can be confident they're protected," Clinton said. "While we're working to bring meat inspection into the 20th Century, some special interests are trying to stop it--in spite of the fact the people have died from E. coli. "

Although not identified in the speech, the "special interests," observers assume, are the food industry trade associations that have complained of being shut out of the inspection reform process and of being placed in an adversarial position with USDA executives writing the plan.

After threatening to kill reform outright with the backing of congressional Republicans, the industry groups retreated and accepted reassurances from Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman that they would be heard. Additional meetings and public hearings will be held in the next few months, Glickman said, before the USDA issues its final regulation later this year or early in 1996. All interested parties will be represented at the upcoming forums.

But in his radio address, Clinton expressed impatience with further delays.

"There would be more tragedies like what happened to Eric Mueller," Clinton warned. "In 1993, Eric was a 13-year-old young man in [Southern] California, the president of his class, the captain of his soccer team, an honor student. One day, like millions of other kids, he ordered a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant. But he died a few days later because he was poisoned by an invisible bacteria, E. coli, that contaminated the hamburger. Dozens of others also died."

The National Meat Assn., an Oakland-based trade group, has taken exception to Clinton's comments, calling them a "misrepresentation" based on "ridiculous mythology." Other groups, including the American Veterinary Medical Assn., have also complained.

However, the victim's father, Rainer Mueller of Oceanside, said he was humbled by the President's mention of his son.

"I'm dedicating a large portion of my life to getting meat inspection updated in this country," he said. Mueller is now on the board of directors for Safe Tables Our Priority, a Carlsbad-based advocacy group.

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