All you eaters of meat and poultry products, Jim Murphy, a leader of government food inspectors, wants to send you a message–SOS-like. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s mandatory continuous meat and poultry inspection tradition is in jeopardy. Ronald Reagan’s secretary of agriculture, John Block, has sent to Congress legislation to end mandatory inspection of processing plants for unwholesome, unsafe or mislabeled products, and he wants his department to have complete discretion to determine which processing plants can police themselves.
Murphy is worried that Block’s proposals also will weaken the application of penalties and speed up chicken production lines so that 4,200 chickens per hour can whiz past inspectors. He asks two good questions: “How many slaughterhouses, packing and processing plants can be expected to discard diseased or contaminated meat when the loss means a downturn in profits? Can consumers be assured that the meat and poultry products they buy are safe, wholesome and free of disease under production-line speedups and self-inspection systems?”
The Reagan officials at USDA say there is nothing to worry about and that the proposed changes will save several million dollars a year. Some also whisper that Murphy has a special interest in saving the jobs of hundreds of meat and poultry inspectors.
I side with Murphy. Ever since our work in the mid-’60s has helped strengthen the meat and poultry inspection laws, one central observation is verified year after year. And that is, when the cats are away the mice will play.
Existing laws are already too weak; civil penalty authority is non-existent. A congressional report concluded that “with few exceptions, neither the USDA nor the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can locate and remove from the market raw meat and poultry found to contain illegal residues. Most are sold to the public.” In one USDA random sample for animal drugs, pesticides and general environmental contaminants such as mercury and lead, rates of violation for cattle and swine reached about 15 percent of the sample. To make matters worse, the USDA has no legal authority to quarantine such suspected animals.
Without non-stop vigilance by government inspectors, meat and poultry plants tend to attract numerous uninvited guests–certain bacteria, insects, rodents and their remains, paint flaking into the processing areas, disease, dirty water and just plain accumulations of filth. Secretary Block cannot deny many years of his own department’s reports itemizing such conditions and citing illegal marketing of diseased or dying animals.
Instead of going to Congress to improve and strengthen the food inspection laws, the Reagan administration cocks its ear to the industry’s trade associations and says: “Tell us what you want us to do.” So it was not coincidental when the anti-consumer congressman, William C. Wampler, R-Va., introduced the Block bill in the House of Representatives, he made no secret of who was behind it all. He listed them: the American Meat Institute, the National Broiler Council, the National Canners Association and the Poultry and Egg Institute.
To add to the pressures on Capitol Hill, food industry lobbyists are pushing the politicians to weaken the food laws that authorize the FDA to guard against harmful chemical additives, some of which cause cancer. This giant network of food corporations is going for broke while their friend, Ronald Reagan, is president.
In the past, whenever the American people aroused themselves over dirty meat and unsafe food, Congress responded with some action. Now is the time for another round of public protest. Interested eaters, who want to make a difference on Congress, can send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tom Smith, Community Nutrition Institute, 1146 19th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. He will send you further information about what you need to know and what you can do.