Strip USDA of meat inspection power, some say Conflict of interest cited by critics


WASHINGTON -- Congressional critics and former top officials say the Agriculture Department does a poor job and should be stripped of its power to police meat and poultry safety. Their testimony was to come at a congressional hearing today.

Witnesses set to advocate the reorganization include a veteran insider -- the man who headed USDA's food safety agency until 1991 -- and the senior food safety specialist for the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress.

The Clinton administration also has endorsed the idea of consolidating food safety enforcement outside USDA, citing the need to prevent outbreaks like the undercooked hamburger tragedy in which three children died and 500 people were sickened in Washington state last January.

Proponents of reorganization say USDA, which is responsible for inspecting meat and poultry plants, has done a poor job and has a conflict of interest. In addition to safety, its mission includes promoting consumption and sales of meat and poultry.

The hearing was being held by a House Government Operations subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations, which also announced it would examine the effectiveness of Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy's efforts over the last eight months to upgrade the federal food safety inspection system.

Mr. Espy's aides say he has done more in the past 10 months than all other department secretaries have achieved since 1980. But skeptics see little progress.

"We're not talking about a few stomach aches -- we're talking about thousands of people infected with deadly microorganism . . . Add to this the staggering medical bills -- estimated at up to $8 billion -- and you get a public health epidemic," said Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the subcommittee, in a written statement.

One backer of stripping food safety from USDA is Lester Crawford, who until late 1991 headed USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. He said in an interview that food safety responsibility should be consolidated outside USDA. Otherwise, he said, bureaucratic infighting is likely to delay or derail many safety proposals.

"It's just a mess like it is," he said.

The GAO also is backing the idea of stripping USDA of its food safety authority, according to an advance copy of its testimony.

"The current food safety system -- which costs the federal treasury $1 billion annually -- does not effectively protect the public," said the statement by John Harman, director of food and agriculture services for the GAO.

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