Meat, Poultry Trade Bear Down as USDA Decision Day Approaches

After 13 months as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, Carol Tucker Foreman is about to make several major decisions affecting consumers who eat meat and poultry.

She is under heavy pressure by industry to make anti-consumer rulings. But as former head of the Consumer Federation of America, Ms. Foreman is generating different expectations within consumer groups. The red meat and poultry trade association newsletters and newspapers have been waging propaganda warfare against her for months. The pandering hysteria and overt greed reflected in many of these publications would themselves make a story about a widespread lobbying tactic against regulators in Washington. Their vituperatives aside, here is what the corporations want Foreman to decide:

1. Continue to permit the use of nitrites in bacon despite the connection with nitrosamines–a cancer-causing substance.

2. Approve the production and commercial use of tissue from ground bone in processed meats such as hotdogs. As one of the few consumer watchdog groups on the Department of Agriculture, the Community Nutrition Institute (CNI) argues that ground bone presents health and safety questions that warrant rejection.

3. Avoid any tighter restrictions on the subtherapeutic uses of drugs on food animals.

4. Continue to permit the practices of vacuum packaging and mechanical tenderization of meat. CNI has petitioned to prohibit these technologies.

5. Continue to allow poultry firms to add water in processing chickens. This practice spreads contamination between the birds and increases water weight. Paying chicken prices for that much retained water takes $500 million a year out of consumers’ pocketbooks, according to CNI studies. Safer and fairer ways are now available.

6. Permit the poultry industry to wash out fecal contamination instead of condemning the offending parts as is now the practice.

7. Refuse to change the grading procedures in a manner that would reduce the incidence of fraud through phony grades that fleece consumers of millions of dollars. A celebrated “60 Minutes” program on CBS exposed this practice last year.

In the past year Foreman has kept a relatively low public profile. She has not made many statements or released evidence of many abuses which would have aroused the consuming public to demand changes.

Rather she has chosen a more restrained approach–listening to industry pleaders, reassuring them and implying that if they start moving their congressional friends to overturn proposed or issued standards, she will start going to the people herself with her views and documentation.

This is a risky strategy. For when the meat and poultry industry makes its move on each of the above forthcoming decisions, Ms. Foreman will not have informed consumer opinion to back her and to deter the industry’s congressional servants.

Ms. Foreman frequently complains that there is not enough consumer group participation in these departmental proceedings and hearings. She knows the reason why. There are not enough consumer groups with the technical expertise to counteract the corporate inpourings.

The Department of Agriculture needs to launch a technical training and assistance program to develop such expertise among biochemists, pathologists, nutritionists and home economics specialists.

Evaluating proposals and participating in proceedings could become part of college and university courses, laboratory and independent work. When the department holds hearings around the country, the consumer chairs would be filled with informed analysts and advocates.

When all is said and done, however, the strongest forces Ms. Foreman has behind her are the meat and poultry laws that she has sworn to uphold and the discretion she possesses to issue regulations and standards under them.

It is time for her to drop the political antennae and pick up the law badge. Most Americans would welcome some reasonable regulatory courage in applying some overdue law and order to the meat and poultry mess.

Interested readers can obtain more information on these topics by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to Community Nutrition Institute, 1146 19th Street N.W., Washington, DC, 20036. Also, send your opinions to Assistant Secretary Carol Foreman, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC.

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