A Dallas-based energy company, in what is believed to be the first action of its kind, has begun requiring its food-service workers to take a blood test indicating exposure to the AIDS virus.
A spokesman for ENSERCH Corp., parent company of Texas utility Lone Star Gas, said yesterday that the test, to be required of current and future food-service personnel there, was initiated as part of a battery of medical tests "to detect any possible medical consideration which potentially could lead to a communicable disease that might endanger our employes."
However, health officials and representatives of gay-rights organizations criticized the action, saying that there is no evidence that AIDS is spread through food handling and that the ENSERCH policy represents a discriminatory use of a test designed to screen the nation's blood supply. They said it appeared to be the first instance in which the AIDS antibody blood test was applied by an American company as a condition of employment.
Meanwhile, local officials in Newark and Dade County, Florida, considered controversial ordinances yesterday that would require food handlers there to be certified as free of communicable diseases, including AIDS.
Despite health experts' assurances to the contrary, concern about the potential spread of AIDS through handling of food by workers in restaurants or other establishments is emerging as the newest battleground over acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
"It's going to be the most difficult issue after children with AIDS in school. After children, I think people are most paranoid about food handlers," said Jeffrey Levi of the National Gay Task Force. The Dallas company's new policy "represents the first signficant private employer to try to introduce AIDS antibody screening."
"There is no scientific basis for what they are doing . . . . It's a kind of bizarre reaction to the hysteria over AIDS," said Dr. Charles Haley, county epidemiologist for the Dallas County Health Department. "We're dealing with a terrifying lethal disease. A lot of people feel that translates into highly contagious, which it clearly isn't."
Haley said it is "highly improbable" that anyone could contract AIDS from an infected individual who is handling food. "In biology you can never say never," he said. "It's as close to never as I could guess."
Haley noted that most food-borne disease is "associated with improper handling of food, such as lack of proper refrigeration or contamination."
His message is echoed by other local and federal health experts, who note that AIDS is known to be spread through intimate contact, mostly sexual, as well as through contact with infected blood. The AIDS antibody blood test, being used nationally to screen out AIDS-infected blood, does not indicate whether or not a person has AIDS, only whether they have been exposed to the virus and are potentially infectious to others.
Although more than 13,000 Americans have contracted the severe form of AIDS, estimates suggest that about 1 million people in this country may be harboring the virus.
Because about three-fourths of reported AIDS cases to date have occurred in male homosexuals, critics fear that the AIDS antibody test will be used for discriminatory purposes.
ENSERCH spokesman Howard Matson said the new medical screening tests, to be paid for by the company, applied to about 22 food-service workers in the company's two employe cafeterias and restaurants. He said about 1,600 employes, who will not be tested, work at the complex where they are located.
In Florida, Dade County Health Director Dr. Richard Morgan said by telephone that he had testified yesterday against a proposed law requiring all food workers there to obtain an annual health card certifying that they do not have a communicable disease. Although tentatively passed last month by county commissioners, he said it now appeared that the bill would be sent to local and state task forces before final action. Morgan said the bill was spurred by the "misconception" that AIDS could be spread through food handling.
In Newark, the city council debated yesterday a proposal mandating annual health examinations for food handlers that had been interpreted to require AIDS antibody blood testing.