Federal meat and poultry inspectors with AIDS will not be removed from their jobs unless they become incapacitated or develop contagious secondary diseases, the Agriculture Department said yesterday.
"If all they had was AIDS, they would not be removed from the plant situation just because they had the disease . . . unless it was determined they couldn't do their job," said Karen Stuck, a spokeswoman for the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Another cause for removal of an inspector from a meat or poultry plant would be if the employe developed a contagious disease in addition to acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Stuck said it has been the agency's policy all along to remove inspectors from their duties in cases of contagious disease.
News stories circulated about six weeks ago that a USDA proposal would mean the firing of inspectors who developed AIDS. The policy was drafted after one of the department's 7,200 inspectors employed nationwide was diagnosed as having AIDS.
But Stuck said in an interview that proposal was only one of several options under consideration by a task force at the time and was not adopted. The final decision was cleared by a White House coordinating committee on AIDS, she said.
Last month, Lester M. Crawford, a senior official of USDA's inspection agency, said the department had no reason to believe that AIDS can be transmitted through food, but meatpacking industry officials had expressed fear that the disease could be transmitted via blood from knife cuts and other injuries common among plant workers.
Crawford said the agency had been working with the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) since 1985 about any actions that should be taken regarding AIDS among food workers. The center said AIDS is not spread through food.
The task force studying the problem decided it was unnecessary to conduct mandatory testing for AIDS antibodies because having the virus alone -- human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV -- "posed no risk to the individual or his-her performance, coworkers or product wholesomeness."
Crawford, who since has been promoted to head of the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, concurred in the task force's recommendations:"Since there is no data indicating a risk to employe safety or product wholesomeness based upon the presence of an individual who tests positive for the HIV virus, no changes or precautions need to be initiated at the workplace." "Since federal personnel regulations already address medical disabilities, an employe diagnosed as having AIDS will be treated no differently than any other employe with a medical disability." "The agency should develop an educational program for its employes. The program could be used to address the nature of the disease, its transmissibility, and types of medical counseling and support resources."
AIDS is a contagious disease that attacks the body's immune system, rendering it incapable of resisting other diseases and infections.
The virus is spread through close contact with bodily fluids, such as blood and semen, from infected persons.
As of Oct. 10, AIDS had been diagnosed in 42,964 Americans, of whom more than half, or 24,698, have died since 1979, according to the CDC. No one is known to have recovered from AIDS.