THE LIST OF speakers at the recent American Meat Institute public affairs conference read like agri-government's cast for a high-budget disaster movie: John Block, secretary of agriculture; Elizabeth Dole, public liaison for President Reagan; Tom Harkin, chairman of the House subcommittee on livestock, dairy and poultry; a USDA assistant secretary and administrator; Arthur Hayes, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and more.
But these names don't spell disaster for the meat industry. For the first time in years, said Block at the opening address, " the meat industry and government are now . . . partners, because we all realize that the key to real success has to be cooperation. I'm looking forward to much more of this."
Block himself is a hog farmer. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Richard Lyng is the former president of the American Meat Institute. And C.W. McMillan, the department's assistant secretary for marketing and transportation services, used to serve as vice president of the National Cattleman's Association.
Participants at the two-day conference -- members of the organization's board of directors from such places as Swift, Armour and Oscar Mayer -- were privy to partisan cheerleading about the president's budget proposal and belt tightening. AMI-member companies were lauded for their support of budget measures, such as noncontinuous meat inspection. (Noncontinuous meat inspection, which should save the USDA about $25 million over the next few years, would allow federal inspectors to visit meat-packing plants less than the now-daily requirement.)
Food safety and sodium labeling, two hot topics during the conference, affect many of AMI's members, most of whom are involved in meat processing and preservation. Food safety:
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) -- Mr. Food Safety to some, more a menace to others -- spoke about the impracticability of current food safety laws, which he would like to see liberalized. To this end, Hatch has introduced a bill in the Senate that he said is "intended to revitalize the public debate on food safety."
The senator told his listeners that current laws could cause the "banning of many basic and traditional foods" such as black pepper, spinach and others. (In reality, the Delaney clause of the Pure Food and Drug Act regulates only those food additives that were not in use before the 1958 legislation -- a category into which black pepper clearly does not fit).
Hatch maintained that a zero-risk food supply is unattainable and that his bill, and other similar proposals, seek to redefine the word "safety." His bill calls it an "absence of significant risk."
USDA assistant secretary C.W. McMillan, chairman of the group that recommends changes in food safety to the administration, defined it as "a reasonable certainty of no significant risk under the intended conditions of use of a substance." He also noted that while "the public health is and should remain the focus of the food safety laws . . . the laws must be consistent with contemporary scientific data on food safety, and they should not place unnecessary burdens on the regulated industry." Sodium labeling:
Virtually everyone, including Hatch, supports the efforts of FDA Commissioner Hayes, who, as former director of the Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center's hypertension clinic, leads administration efforts to convince industry of the need to attach sodium labeling to its products.
At the AMI conference, Hayes described the sodium program as "a test of whether an essentially voluntary program, relying on industry to address an obvious public health need, can work in today's environment."
With support from virtually all high-ranking administration food regulators (and some pressure from pending congressional action that would make sodium labeling the law), industry clearly has reasons to make sodium labeling a priority. Hayes said he anticipates that half the foods regulated by FDA will include sodium labeling by the end of this year.
In addition, the FDA has cooperated with the USDA and the National Institutes of Health to begin an educational program that, Hayes believes, has "heightened public awareness and understanding of the relationship between sodium and health."
"I believe," he added, "that sodium reduction is a worthy health goal for the public in general."
In addition, McMillan of the USDA said his agency has committed $800,000 to research to determine the minimum amount of sodium necessary to assure that some processed meats (such as bacon or luncheon meats) are safe and wholesome, and to see how compounds containing sodium work in foods.
Ironically, while officials of both agencies stressed to their listeners the need for "heightened public awareness" about the sodium content in foods, the Government Printing Office was already moving to increase the cost of the information booklet "The Sodium Content of Your Foods." Available to the consumers for $2.25 through the Pueblo, Colo., distribution office, the price could climb as high as $4.25 for the 35-page reference pamphlet. The meat supply:
Listing slightly to the left of the administration, agriculture subcommittee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told meat industry representatives that the reputation of the American meat supply was in serious trouble because of certain import problems.
Harkin maintained that he doesn't care much if people want to eat kangaroo (imported from Australia last year as "ground beef"), he just wants to make sure consumers know what they're getting. The kangaroo fiasco, combined with a few other scandals (two boxes of dirt showing up at one processing plant and incidences of once-rejected meat slipping through inspections), said Harkin, have motivated him to take another look at the meat-importation process.
USDA's Houston said that while the agency has taken steps to see these incidents aren't repeated, it recognizes the further need to prevent consumers from losing confidence in the meat supply.
One USDA measure to save money may test this confidence even further. The success of the proposed "less-than-continuous meat inspection" depends on meat processing plants to self-inspect. That is, processors who historically have scored well under daily USDA inspections may be responsible for maintaining adequate processing techniques under periodic inspection by the USDA.
Harkin told the AMI members that consumer groups oppose this plan because the regulation, as it stands, provides no penalty to processors who violate the rules.
Action on all these issues is pending and, as officials pointed out, no answers come quickly. Speakers encouraged industry representatives to combine their efforts to enhance communication with the administration and to effect necessary changes.