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The food lottery


Washington -- TWO YEARS ago, we were all outraged -- and frightened -- when three children died and hundreds of people fell ill in the Northwest from bacterium in tainted hamburger meat.

The victims, most of whom had eaten at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants, were infected with E. coli O157:H7, a newly discovered, nasty little microbe that thrives in the intestines and feces of mammals and can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, kidney and heart failure or death.

The cry went up for the federal government to improve the country's system of meat and poultry inspection to protect the public from such tragedies. In addition to contaminated meat, there have been repeated cases of salmonella poising caused by poultry and eggs.

The Clinton administration responded, promising to reform an antiquated process that is woefully inadequate to prevent bacterial food poisoning.

The chief result is pending federal regulations that would require slaughter and processing plants to switch to modern, scientific inspection methods that would detect harmful bacteria using microbial testing. Currently, meat and poultry carcasses are checked by inspectors the same way they have been since 1907 -- by sight, smell and touch.

The proposal has been aired at a series of hearings and scientific conferences. Comments have been sought from the industry and the public. The Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service is set to review the findings beginning July 5 with the goal of implementing new rules by the end of the year.

A citizen's lobbying group backed by food-poisoning victims and their families held a press conference last Tuesday to drum up support for scientific measuring during food processing. The National Cattlemen's Association officially supports it. So does the retail food service industry, which is imposing its own similar standards on suppliers to assure the meat they serve customers will not make them sick.

There is, according to FSIS administrator Michael Taylor, "universal support for the concept" of modernization. Nobody in the food business, including the meat and poultry packing and processing industry, wants to be identified as being cavalier about public health.

But the food industry is trying to block new safety regulations in indirect ways, using delaying tactics and putting pressure on congressional allies. The basic complaint is familiar: to upgrade their operating procedures, it would cost the companies money they don't want to spend.

How quickly we forget. Food safety is now a prime target of Congress' crusade to reduce, eliminate or suspend major federal regulations designed to protect the public interest. Republicans charge the regulations interfere unduly with free enterprise in general -- and, specifically, their big business contributors.

The legislative assault takes two forms. One is a proposed moratorium on new federal regulations. The other would establish a complex review process for most regulations. It would require expensive and time-consuming, cost-benefit analyses that could tie up new rules for years, if not forever.

Both campaigns are temporarily stymied by differences in what the House and Senate want to do.

In both approaches, the House has adopted an all-or-nothing attitude equally targeting essential protections and admittedly silly rules. The Senate would also restrain the federal instinct to regulate but is inclined to go more slowly in an effort to separate the bad from the good.

The House has passed some regulatory roadblocks and is considering others. The Senate has not yet agreed on any, although there are measures pending in committee.

But the moratorium issue -- in two vastly different forms -- has passed both houses and is in conference, that closed-door, unrecorded brawl which is supposed to produce a compromise. The House is sticking to the freeze idea while the Senate merely wants new power to review and potentially reject unwanted regulations within 45 days. They are far apart.

The Senate still shows no interest in a moratorium, which would prompt a filibuster by Democrats concerned about gutting basic health and safety protections. The House gesture toward moderation is to propose freezing only 30 specific pending regulations rather than everything in sight.

Significantly, one of the 30 the House singles out for this dubious icy hit is the Agriculture Department's proposed new inspection system to detect bacterial contamination of meat and poultry.

Rep. David McIntosh, R-Ind., chief sponsor of the moratorium, argued in debate on the House floor that basic health and safety regulations would be exempted. But in conference he now insists that modernizing meat and poultry inspection -- bringing it, in essence, out of the backwoods and into the 21st Century -- is not that important.

The reform clearly is in legislative trouble. But just wait until the next outbreak of food contamination.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

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