Two federal meat inspectors called on Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng yesterday to investigate their charges that high-level department officials destroyed evidence of widespread contamination of meat products in California.
Inspectors Eduardo Delgado and Vernice Gee said in a 24-page petition that Food Safety and Inspection Service officials here censored a draft report of an agency review that found major health violations in more than 100 southern California packing plants last year.
Their petition, prepared by the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower protection organization here, said that the special review found examples of confirmed, probable or potential meat contamination in 127 of 236 packing plants.
After the review, FSIS officials said that some severe problems had been uncovered but that there was no evidence of meat contamination. But a USDA inspector general's investigation of cover-up charges brought earlier by Gee and Delgado raised major doubts about the Washington version.
One agency executive told inspector general interviewers that disclosure to the public of "gross violations" needing quick corrective action "would have caused utter chaos for both the agency and the meat industry and may have unfairly harmed many good plants."
Gee and Delgado said that the inspector general's report, which they obtained with a freedom-of-information request, found that the only copy of a critical draft report by the FSIS review team and copies of reports of interviews with witnesses apparently had been destroyed by the department.
They charged that censorship of the final report had been ordered by Lou Gast, then the associate administrator of FSIS. Gast, who received a $10,000 bonus for distinguished service upon his recent retirement, told inspector general agents that the draft report "may have been destroyed, but I did not instruct anyone to destroy it."
"However," the inspector general's report quoted Gast as saying, "I have no concern regarding its disposition since it served its purpose of identifying the symptoms, which caused broader program problems, permitting action to be taken to prevent a reoccurrence."
The petition by the FSIS inspectors did not cite specific public health consequences of meat contamination from the reviewed plants, but noted that USDA and California recently began an epidemiological study of human disease from unwholesome meat because of a tripling last year in reported cases of salmonella poisoning.
Delgado and Gee asked Lyng to order the inspector general to reopen the investigation and to determine whether destruction of documents or false statements by witnesses violated civil or criminal laws. They also asked that the draft report be released -- if it still exists -- and that the public be told which of the 236 plants violated sanitation rules and what corrective action has been taken.
The inspectors also urged Lyng to assure that a pending FSIS report on a follow-up study of the 1985 review will contain "all evidence material relevant to public safety and that no such evidence will be destroyed."
Lyng, who was president of the American Meat Institute before he joined the Reagan administration in 1981, also was asked to reopen an investigation of charges by Dr. Carl Telleen, an FSIS veterinarian, that the agency prohibits public disclosure of cases in which contaminated products have received USDA inspection approval.
Gee and Delgado both were in hot water after the California review. Delgado was suspended for a week -- an order later reversed when GAP intervened -- and Gee was assaulted and injured by a packing plant employe, and then reprimanded by FSIS for his involvement in the incident.