Poultry industry officials, federal meat inspectors and consumer representatives endorsed a Clinton administration proposal to modernize inspection of poultry and meat.
But they disagreed over whether the program would result in profound changes for the industry.
Prompted by deaths and illnesses caused by tainted and undercooked hamburgers in the Northwest, H. Russell Cross, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, told a House subcommittee in Washington Tuesday that his agency would begin a "revolutionary" program to reform the government's oversight of meat production.
The program would include testing for the microbes that cause salmonella and other illnesses not detected by current methods.
Some industry executives said the proposals might not significantly change the way they do business because they already do all they can to make chicken safe. The producers said one of the causes of food-borne illness was improper handling by processors and consumers.
But inspectors and consumer advocates warned that reform would not be effective unless sweeping changes were adopted.
Elaine Dodge, a spokeswoman for the Government Accountability Project, a consumer watchdog group in Washington, said her organization was "enthusiastic" about some of the reform proposals but was worried that the USDA would be slow to enact the changes.
Likely to be among the most controversial proposals are:
* Inspecting chicken coops for salmonella contamination. USDA
officials said yesterday that Denmark, for example, reports finding illness-causing bacteria on only one-half of 1 percent of all raw chicken meat in stores -- vs. 40 percent in the United States -- because of a tight inspection that does not allow contaminated live chickens into processing plants.
* Changing the way government inspectors do their jobs. Currently, the nation's 7,350 federal meat inspectors do visual checks for such problems as dirt or tumors.
They cannot test for germs because laboratory work may take several days. Dr. Cross said it might be years before rapid tests for microbes were developed.
* Chemical or radiation treatment. The USDA approved the use last year of trisodium phosphate (TSP) or radiation to kill germs on chicken meat. Dr. Cross said that if enough processors did not voluntarily use those or find other ways to reduce contamination, he would consider making the treatments mandatory.
Steve McCauley, a spokesman for Perdue Farms Inc. in Salisbury, said yesterday that Perdue is testing TSP and has found that it does "dramatically reduce" the amount of germs on chicken meat.
Perdue was leery of using gamma radiation to sterilize meat because of consumer fears, he said.
* Changing the way chicken is processed. Dr. Cross said he wanted USDA to pinpoint the "critical areas" where contamination from one bird might be spread to others.
But Carl Hill, a veteran inspector of Eastern Shore chicken plants, warned that truly cleaning up chicken meat might require significant changes to existing processing plants -- and that companies would likely fight expensive moves.
One process that might have to be changed, for example, is the method of dropping just-killed birds into a tank of hot water to loosen the feathers, said Mr. Hill.
"The reason the scald tank is so nasty is that all the chickens' feathers are full of fecal material. The feathers soak up a lot of water, then the [mechanical] pickers beat the feathers off," sometimes tearing the chicken's skin, he said.
"They are beating the contamination right back in to the bird."