Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and former consumer advocate Carol Tucker Foreman yesterday defended her department's consumer policies and denied any charges of unethical behavious by her staff or herself.
Foreman appeared before The House Agriculture subcommittee, which held oversight hearings into the department's consumer activities. A subcommittee official said there have received numerous complaints about the consumer operation.
In addition to defending the policies of her department concerning its proposals on weight labeling, meat grading and reducing nitrates in bacon, Foreman was also forced to defend her ethics, and those of one of her key aides, Robert Angelotti.
Questioning by chairman Rep. W.R. Poage (D-Texas) and several other committee members was aimed at two specific incidents.
Why, the subcommittee wanted to know, was the Consumer Federation of America awarded a contract to do an economic impact survey? Foreman used to head the CFA, and several subcommittee members implied that certain departmental rules concerning contracts were bypassed to give the CFA the contract.
Foreman defended the selection of CFA for the $24,536 contract by saying that the consumer group was the only bidder willing to do the work needed in a short time period, which the agency demanded.
"We were under extreme time pressure," Foreman said, adding that the other prospective bidders for the contract all said they wanted far more time for the study.
"I was not involved in the selection," Foreman said, "and I have no financial tie with CFA." But subcommittee staffers questioned CFA's objectivity, since the consumer group had testified in favor of the action that was to be the subject of the survey.
The second controversy brought up by the subcommittee was the relationship between Angelotti, who is the administrator of the Food Safety and Quality Service and a food industry consultant, Herb Silverstein of Encino, Calif.
Subcommittee questioners asked Angelotti why Silverstein accompanied him on surprise visits to several beef producer facilities on a recent trip to Denver.
"He is a friend of mine," Angelotti said.
But the subcommittee pressed him, and asked if he knew that Silverstein had gone back to some of the concerns they had visited and offered his services as a consultant will experience in government regulation.
Angelotti said he knew of no such visits.
In other questioning, Foreman defended the regulatory actions of the Food Safety and Quality Service of the Agriculture Department. Just over a year old, the FSQS is responsible for the administration of meat and poultry inspection, egg products inspections, and grading of meat, poultry, eggs and fresh and processed fruits and vegetables.
She particularly defended efforts to increase the consumer voice in the regulatory decision-making process, although several subcommittee members were clearly opposed to the concept of funding consumer travel to Washington for hearings and other activities.
"In the past," Foreman said, "industry was frequently the only voice heard."