For several years Carol Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America and Rod Leonard of the Community Nutrition Institute were on the same side of numerous food policy issues involving the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But Foreman, now assistant secretary of agriculture, made a decision a few days ago regarding nitrites in bacon that Leonard (who held a similar post in USDA during the Johnson administration) promptly denounced as unlawful and harmful to consumer interests.
It is important for consumers to understand the substance of this controversy because it is likely to recur repeatedly in future decisions by Carol Foreman.
The federal meat inspection law prohibits the sale of any product containing a substance that may be injurious to human health. Authoritative tests have shown that potent cancer-causing substances called nitrosamines are found in bacon products. According to USDA, nitrosamines “result when the nitrate or nitrite used in the bacon-curing mixture combines, under heat, with certain compounds in the product.”
With the appointment of Carol Foreman to the USDA post in early 1977, consumer groups specializing in food safety problems believed that federal law would be invoked to eliminate the meat industry’s use of nitrite as a coloring and flavoring agent. To start matters moving, the Community Nutrition Institute formally petitioned USDA to ban the use of nitrite totally in meat products, including bacon.
On October 13, 1977, the USDA stated on the record its intent to ban the use of nitrates or nitrites in the production of bacon unless it is shown that the use of these substances “would not result in the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines in any sample of that product during processing or preparation for eating.” Neither the industry nor anyone else could make such a showing, the USDA agreed.
So to Rod Leonard the law and the facts were clear–there had to be a prohibition after eight long years of discussion and proceedings. He never envisioned that Carol. Foreman, as he put it, would be the first federal official to make a decision that permits an undisputed cancer-causing substance to remain in commercially sold food, although at a reduced level.
Yet on May 15, Carol Foreman announced that by May, 1979, the USDA proposed to require a reduction in the level of sodium nitrite used in curing bacon to 40 parts per million (ppm). In the interval, she issued a final regulation, effective June 15, 1978, permitting no more than 120 ppm of sodium nitrite and 10 parts per billion (ppb) of nitrosamines. (There is no known safe threshold level for cancer-causing substances.)
The American Meat Institute (AMI), a trade association of meat packers, called Ms. Foreman’s decision “responsible.” After all, she relied heavily on their data and their recommendations. But Carol Foreman privately was not happy with her decision. She would have liked an outright prohibition on nitrites and she knew that was what the law called for.
Why then did she issue such rules? Because she believes that congressional supporters of the meat industry on the Appropriations Committees, led by Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), would retaliate against her food and regulatory programs. Fearing a loss on Capitol Hill, she produced one in her office.
What exactly is Assistant Secretary Foreman worried about? Legislation amending the meat inspection act? Not with a Carter veto ready to back her up even in the unlikely event that Congress should move such a restriction. Budgeting restrictions? Again there are substantial allies for Foreman’s programs in Congress, among labor unions and civic groups.
More deplorable than these inhibitions is Carol Foreman’s reluctance to realize that her most important mission is to take on the Jamie Whitten clique in Congress and lift this oppressive force over USDA once and for all.
If she is unwilling to do this, given her former experience as a consumer advocate and her potential to reach the people through the media, she should explain publicly the predicament. If she doesn’t lead, how are consumers and anti-Whitten legislators going to be adequately mobilized when Whitten expects to be chosen chairman of the House Appropriations Committee next year?
Rod Leonard is not prone to using strong language. But this time, commenting on the USDA’s nitrate decision, he said: “The department is compelled both legally and morally to eliminate nitrosamine adulteration; the rule demonstrates that the department is more interested in maintaining the bacon processor status quo than with the safety of the public.”
For years I have heard Nixon and Ford administration officials dodge reporters’ questions about what to warn the public concerning substances that have long-term damage to health. They would say there is no immediate hazard which, of course, begs the question of the real effects of pollutants and carcinogens.
So it was with more than a sense of disappointment to learn of Carol Foreman’s response to a reporter who asked whether the public should be advised to stop eating bacon containing nitrosamines. She replied: “The public will have to make its own judgment; however, we don’t believe there is an imminent health hazard involved.”
Translated that means, don’t forthrightly inform the public what you know and believe; it would depress the sale of bacon.