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    A Times Editorial

    Redefining 'harmful'

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 19, 2003

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supposed to protect American consumers from tainted meat. Instead, it appears to be more interested in protecting irresponsible meat processing companies.

    Elsa Murano, the top food safety administrator at USDA, told a congressional subcommittee that the department would oppose any effort to force meat companies to tell consumers which stores received tainted products. That would seem to be a key piece of information consumers should have in trying to avoid illness or even death from bad meat. But Murano argued that the companies would become less cooperative if they were required to release the names of their customers.

    Only in the Orwellian regulatory world of the Agriculture Department would such information be considered harmful to consumers.

    This is not an academic exercise. Last summer, ConAgra Foods had to recall 19-million pounds of ground beef contaminated with E. coli bacteria, the second largest action of its kind. A few months later, Wampler Foods initiated the largest meat recall in history, warning that 27.4-million pounds of deli products could be contaminated with listeria. In the Wampler case alone, 120 people were sickened by the meat and 13 died. Such contamination might have been discovered before the products were distributed, but the Bush administration delayed implementation of rules that would have required Wampler and other companies to test for listeria -- bacteria that infect so-called "ready-to-eat" meat products and that are particularly harmful to pregnant women, young children and the elderly.

    Now, when meat is recalled, consumers are told where the meat was produced, in what states it was distributed and an identification number, which may or may not be on the package. The problem with that system is that meat is commonly repackaged by the retailer and carries a different ID number.

    Murano admits that the USDA currently has the authority to make meat companies publicize the names of restaurants, grocery stores and butcher shops that have been shipped contaminated meat. But she said she is afraid that the companies would sue the government and delay any recall of bad meat. When Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., offered to introduce legislation that would stop such lawsuits from delaying a recall, Murano declined.

    Murano's attitude should make American consumers wonder whose side the Agriculture Department is on.

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