Meat grading, inspection and labeling: The administration's goal to relieve industry of too many regulations motivated the USDA to propose changes in meat grading, inspection and labeling areas.

Responding to a petition from the National Cattleman's Association, the USDA initially proposed to change meat grades to allow leaner, less costly beef to achieve the "Choice" grade. The proposal was "damaging to consumers and benefit ed only cattlemen," according to one consumer advocate. Restaurateurs and even some cattle breeders were against the measure. The department received thousands of letters opposing the proposal, which it subsequently dropped.

Consumers achieved no such victory with an issue that involves the mechanical removal of meat from the bone to be used in processed meats. According to Katherine Meyer of the Public Citizen Litigation Group (which is now suing the USDA and two meat industry groups), the public could be misled about the content of some of its bologna.

For several years, the law required meat processors to label any product that was made with meat mechanically removed from the bone, asserting that the consumer would not expect to find bone particles in his hot dogs. This meat product, obtained by rubbing the bone against a small sieve to remove bits of meat that were left after hand boning, contains small bits of bone, marrow and connective tissue.

The law required that packages of hot dogs made with this product say so, right on the front. Under "Frankfurters" it had to say "Mechanically processed beef product." During the comment period, consumers told the USDA that if they were buying this type of meat, they wanted clear labeling.

The meat industry said that consumers wouldn't buy a product labeled that way, and it wanted more liberal labeling requirements. Last July, the department issued new rules that do not require identification on the front of the package. The only way a consumer will know that the meat contains "mechanically separated 'species' " (the product's new name) is to check ingredient labeling. The label will reflect bone content only by stating the meat contains calcium. "There is no way in the world that you will know that this product has powdered bone in it," says Meyer.

Meyer claims that this labeling misleads the public and that the USDA assumes a "paternalistic" posture when it removes the information from the front of the package. The whole issue, says Meyer, is "should consumers who go into the grocery store to choose meat products for their family know what is in the product?" Although this MSS meat should bring down the cost of processed meat, says Meyer, "there's no incentive to the meat industry to bring the price down if the consumer can't tell the difference and doesn't know what he's buying."

USDA Assistant Secretary C.W. McMillan refused to comment, saying that since the USDA is involved in litigation over the matter, "the lawyers have put a muzzle on me."

* Meat inspection: The administration has proposed to change the meat inspection laws, which now require that a USDA inspector be in every meat slaughtering and processing plant every day, to a system of "non-continuous inspection."

Non-continuous inspection would allow meat processing operations that meet certain quality-control criteria to have intermittent (and unannounced) visits from USDA inspectors. Meat slaughtering plants would still be inspected daily.

Consumers advocates oppose the change. There are no penalties for plants that abuse the system, they say. The secretary of agriculture, who decides which plants qualify for intermittent inspection, has virtually no restrictions. The proposal is too vague, say the advocates, and there's no incentive for the meat industry to keep a clean product.

But proponents say the USDA is only "modernizing" the meat inspection process. A lot of changes have occured since Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" documented the atrocities of the meat packing industry. Technology, innovation and strict quality control help processors produce clean, unadulterated bologna. Profit motivates the company to maintain quality, say representatives of the USDA and meat industries. Those who oppose the proposal, however, claim that industry has economic incentive to adulterate the product: extra water in a hot dog, for instance, saves money for the producer and the consumer pays for water, not meat.

* Food Safety Laws: After a research project by Dr. Paul Newberne of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that nitrites -- a substance common to nearly all processed meats -- might cause cancer, the industry has been very nervous about the Delaney Clause. This clause, added to the Pure Food and Drug Act in the 1950s, forbids the presence of any chemical that causes cancer in any animal to be allowed in any food. The law allows no "grace period" and would force the industry to remove a product from the market immediately, a process with potentially serious economic repercussions.

As a result, legislators and administrators have taken a long, hard look at food safety laws. McMillan has served on a committee to help the administration establish a policy on food safety. The group has just published a draft of its findings after discussing the matter with consumers, legislators, scientists and the respective staffs of Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)

The report, says William Schultz, an attorney with Public Citizen Litigation Group, recommends "major changes in the Delaney Clause,"one of which, he says, "is to give the administration enough flexibility to allow small amounts of carcinogens in foods."

Another example, he says, is that once an additive is found unsafe, the administration could allow as many as eight "grace" years to phase out the product.

"Whereas two years ago we often saw the USDA initiate programs in order to benefit consumers or educate consumers about food issues, today we find the programs that the USDA is initiating are in response to some industry concern," alleges Schultz. "It's hard to think of an initiative from this administration that has benefited consumers."

Assistant Secretary McMillan says that the recommendations are "nothing locked in concrete," but the allegation that the department responds only to industry is "not true. We are by all means interested in food safety for the consumer," he says, but "also interested in state of the art and the ability to detect residues toxins in food ." Because science allows closer scrutiny of food, smaller particles can be found, and science is learning that the food supply cannot be "risk free." In addition, says McMillan, just because something causes cancer in animals does not automatically mean that it causes cancer in man.

* Agriculture marketing orders and subsidies: The Office of Management and Budget suggested that the USDA could provide some "regulatory relief" by changing the marketing order system, which establishes wholesale prices and determines supply of commodities such from pecans to oranges. By restricting the supply of oranges in a glut year, for instance, the USDA can make sure farmers get higher prices for the product. This is good for farmers (it guarantees them good prices on their produce), but bad for consumers (who end up paying higher prices even in a glut year). But USDA "dropped the ball" on marketing orders, says Ellen Haas of the Community Nutrition Institute, and "never followed through with any changes." For consumers to benefit, the pure law of supply and demand would work: in years of light orange crops, the consumer would pay higher prices; in years of heavy crops, he would pay lower prices.

In addition, says Haas, "the department has been much more aggressive" in attacking agriculture subsidy programs than problems that affect the consumer. The government will cut back on money paid to dairy farmers, for instance, but maintains sugar price supports that don't cost the government anything but cost consumers billions of dollars every year.

Dawson Ahalt, USDA deputy assistant secretary for economics, says that sugar price supports need to be seen from "a broad perspective" of the total farm program. The farm bill is designed to assure that farmers get a fair price for their products. Dairy farmers receive less government support than they did during the last administration, Ahalt points out, and the law no longer limits peanut production, a situation that increases competition.

Marketing orders, guidelines established by the producers themselves to insure market stability, "benefit both producers and consumers," says Karen Darling, USDA special assistant in marketing and inspection services. Although OMB "would just as soon USDA get out of the marketing order business," says Darling, "It's our view that they stabilize the marketplace and that benefits consumers."

" Food prices have been going up less than the overall rate of inflation," says Ahalt. "Consumers have been getting an awfully good bargain and it's coming out of the farmer's pocket."