For Ronald Reagan, eating red meat is as American as apple pie. He is known to like chicken too. So he should have a passing interest in a puzzling contrast between his Department of Agriculture’s position on foodborne illnesses from contaminated livestock and poultry and that of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs.
While recognizing that meat and poultry contamination “is a critical public health problem,” Donald Houston, the chief of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, waxes eloquent about how much his agency is doing to detect and control contamination by salmonella and other bacteria. Why, to read his statements, one would lean back in ye ole Morris chair and relax. Your government is hard at work using law enforcement and the latest technological strategies to keep you from throwing up or worse.
Until, that is, you start looking closely at what he is saying. Houston is long on listing all the special bulletins, educational materials and instructional publications distributed to meat and poultry plant inspectors and managers. He describes various voluntary endeavors promoting, for instance, a forthcoming “incentive labeling program” for meat and poultry processors who follow “approved microbiological controls.” Presumably you will recognize this label and prefer to buy the product to which it is attached instead of some competitor’s product that is without this imprimitur.
Houston does not care to deplore the decline in the number of federal meat and poultry inspectors, their low morale at being over-ruled if they do their job stalwartly, and the reduced emphasis on enforcement compared with voluntary program beseechings. With government budgets up for corporate subsidies and waste-ridden military hardware, the budget for clean and safe meat and poultry is small and pitiful.
In fact, Houston wants an end to continual inspection of poultry assembly lines. He wants samples taken instead, as if the two approaches are mutually incompatible.
Meat and poultry inspectors who inform us warn of a deteriorating situation. Angelo J. Aponte agrees. As Commissioner of New York City’s consumer affairs department, he has a report: “Meat. and Poultry Contamination: A Silent Public Health Hazard” (88 Lafayette Street, New York, New York, 10013, if you wish to write for a copy).
Half of the six million Americans afflicted by food poisoning each year are eaters of contaminated meat and poultry. Aponte says that the “cycle of contamination begins where poultry and livestock are raised and fed contaminated feed, and continues to the refrigerated case of the retail store.”
His Department did a survey of ground beef, chicken and deli roast beef last autumn. Samples were collected and tested by a USDA approved laboratory. The findings: 53% of the chicken, 52% of the roast beef, and 17% of the ground beef samples were contaminated. There was a clear correlation between high temperatures (poor refrigeration) and bacterial prevalence. Are consumers to be left only with the advice that proper cooking will reduce the salmonella risk?
The New York City report urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set and enforce microbiological standards. Aponte urged a mobilization of consumers and consumer groups to demand similar tests in other cities to build pressure on the Reagan government to meet the federal law’s mandate of assuring wholesome meat and poultry products for the American dinner table.
Why not ask what your nearest Department of Health or Consumer Affairs is doing?