The Agriculture Department, under pressure from industry to clarify its policy on workers with AIDS, has proposed dismissing meat and poultry inspectors diagnosed as having the disease, officials said yesterday.
The move to single out AIDS in the department's guidelines on workers with contagious or incurable diseases comes after a federal food inspector was diagnosed as being infected with the AIDS virsus. The department declined to identify the inspector or the privately owned plant where he works.
Federal meat inspectors work side by side with slaughter house employes, and the meat-packing industry increasingly has been raising questions about the possible spread of AIDS in an environment filled with disease-causing bacteria and where knife cuts are a predominant injury.
In its effort to ensure the wholesomeness of the American meat supply, the Agriculture Department employs about 7,000 meat and poultry inspectors. Last year, they inspected more than 125 million head of livestock and 4.5 billion poultry animals.
The department has always been able to dismiss food inspectors with incurable, contagious diseases. The new proposal simply seeks to end confusion over how AIDS cases should be handled, officials said.
The department's draft proposal, which would classify inspectors as "unfit for duty," says dismissals would apply only to inspectors who have AIDS and manifest secondary infections. Employes not showing AIDS-related symptoms, although infected with the virus or AIDS-related complex (ARC), would not be dismissed, according to the draft plan.
Lester Crawford, associate administrator of the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the proposal made such distinctions about AIDS because he believes persons only infected with the virus or those with ARC still have some level of immunity and should be able to work.
However, scientists increasingly believe that AIDS is a spectrum of diseases that begins once a person becomes infected with the AIDS virus. The distinction between AIDS and ARC has become less significant, in part, because the disease is not classified by level of infection.
The Centers for Disease Control has said that blood-borne and sexually transmitted infections are not spread during the preparation of food or beverages and that no instances of transmission of the AIDS virus has been documented in such settings.
Dr. James Allen, assistant director for medical science of CDC's AIDS program, has written the Agriculture Department on the matter, saying that while the potential for infection by blood transmission exists, "it seems extremely unlikely that an actual situation would occur where this risk would be significant."
Donald Houston, administrator of the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the proposal "does not challenge" CDC policy that AIDS patients should not be restricted from working in food establishments, nor does it say that the AIDS virus can be spread through food.
The idea, he said, is to protect immune-suppressed individuals from being at risk for diseases caused by pathogens, the disease-causing bacteria that inhabit slaughter and processing establishments, and to prevent AIDS carriers from transmitting those diseases to food or other workers.
There are more than 60 zootomic diseases, or diseases that can be transmitted from animals to man, such as streptococcus, toxoplasmosis and brucellosis. Some of them can be passed, through coughing or sores, into the food supply or to other humans.
Under the draft proposal, inspectors with AIDS who were dismissed and had been employed for more than five years would be given disability status and be able to retain their health insurance. Those who had worked for less than five years would be given payment equal to as much annual and sick leave as they had accumulated, plus unemployment compensation. The total payment plan would run for approximately nine months to a year.
Houston said that the proposal's procedures for dismissal and the offer of medical benefits for those who qualify for it are the same as for inspectors who have permanent disabilities or other incurable diseases.