Notwithstanding hopes of some in the food industry and fears of some consumer activists, the new US administration of Republican President George W. Bush is not likely to reverse the principal advances in food safety implemented during the eight years of former President Bill Clinton. Bush and his appointees are more likely to please food manufacturers with a more flexible attitude toward regulation – and thus will at times frustrate consumer campaigners – but nothing in their records suggests they will mount a major attempt at deregulation.

Bush not only inherited a long list of pending food regulatory decisions when he took office January 20 but also took on the hopes of many food industry leaders that he would adopt a more compliant posture in regulating food safety. Chief among industry aspirations is repeal of Salmonella standards adopted by the US Department of Agriculture in its meat and poultry inspection system, challenged by the industry in a lawsuit pending in a federal appeals court.

The president and his new secretary of agriculture, Ann M. Veneman, will owe a political debt to the meat industry for its vigorous financial support of the successful Republican election campaign last year but that is not likely to be enough to warrant wholesale reversal of the aggressive food safety efforts undertaken by the predecessor administration of Democrat Bill Clinton.

Signals from both Bush and Veneman suggest a go-slow approach and changes mostly at the margins. The president used a pre-Inauguration interview to send a message that ”

“No group should assume it is entitled to something”

no group should assume it is entitled to something” for its support, The Wall Street Journal reported January 17. It quoted Bush as “somewhat concerned to hear parties who’ve got interests in front of the government […] just waiting for the Bush Administration to show up and something will be done.” Veneman, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee, the following day, was proud of her food safety record in California and asserted USDA “needs to be vigilant in protecting the safety of our food supply.” Veneman also has spoken often of the importance of “sound science” in food safety regulation and trade.

Even if it were so disposed, the administration would face intense scrutiny from Congress, the public, consumer groups and news media if it sought to weaken food safety protections. Recent US news media fixation on the “mad cow” disease concerns in Europe – even though the illness has never been found in US cattle — has escalated public attention to government’s role in assuring food safety. What is more, the inspection agency itself will be reluctant to weaken its policy even if its politically appointed supervisors wish. Following congressional directions in late 1993, the culture of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service has been transformed from one of agricultural promotion into that of a public health agency.

There is some evidence the administration will continue or escalate the push to more modern meat and poultry inspection techniques, replacing “touch and smell” visual inspection with greater reliance on laboratory analysis of risky pathogens. That endeavour got a boost in January when a federal district court upheld USDA’s changes in a HACCP inspection pilot program, saying the changes satisfied legal obstacles raised by an appeals court in a suit filed by inspectors. Poultry from 11 plants and pork from three slaughter facilities in the test venture, USDA has pointed out, more consistently meet safety standards and have fewer non-food safety defects than products produced in plants under traditional inspection.

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The White House ordered a temporary “hold” on Clinton Administration regulations issued but not formally published. That delayed the USDA proposal to require processors to test ready-to-eat meat and poultry for Listeria monocytogenes but the scheme was expected to emerge again later in the year, perhaps in modified form. A 60-day postponement of effective dates of published rules also affected a USDA proposal to require labels disclosing fat, calorie and cholesterol content in meat and poultry.

Similar forces are in play around proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations governing waste from confined animal feeding operations. The administration surely will give the proposal vigorous scrutiny, but experts reinforce the expectation of no dramatic change. ”

“The public still wants clean water and clean air”

The public still wants clean water and clean air,” says R. Thomas Van Arsdall, vice-president for environmental issues at the National Council of Farmer Co-operatives, “and they, not the environmental groups, are the real drivers” behind feedlot waste regulations. The incoming administration “is not going to roll all this back,” Van Arsdall added, noting Republicans had learned a painful lesson after they won control of Congress in 1994 and were tagged as sponsors of a “dirty water act” when they sought unsuccessfully to repeal environmental protection legislation. Moreover, 46 state governments now regulate feedlot runoff and many have more stringent controls than the proposed federal rules.

One of the most visible decisions facing Veneman will be the petition filed in mid-December by the American Meat Institute and other meat processor trade groups seeking to amend rules followed by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) governing how it enforces meat and poultry inspection regulations. The industry objects most to the rule allowing FSIS to withhold inspection from, and thus close, a plant when meat contains Salmonella bacteria exceeding its standards. USDA has appealed a federal court ruling that federal law does not allow FSIS to stop inspecting a Texas plant for failure to meet the standard.

Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, in an interview during his final month in office, expressed concern about the political pressure on Veneman to relax food safety rules. Noting Veneman’s record as a food safety regulator when she headed the California Department of Food and Agriculture, he said he was not concerned that Veneman personally would favour lax regulation but that ”

“Some elements of the food industry would like to see a weaker government”

some elements of the food industry would like to see a weaker government.” He also believes others in the industry, especially retailers and restaurants, would apply countervailing pressure to “be wary that food safety policy not go backwards.”

In a talk late last year, former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety Catherine Woteki said the meat and poultry inspection system would not be weakened because it had been so successful “no matter what standard you use to judge that success – the reduction of Salmonella prevalence in meat and poultry products, the decreased incidence of food-borne illness reported by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, industry compliance with the Pathogen Reduction and HACCP rule, or the minimal effects the rule has had on the structure of the industry in terms of closures and consolidation.” Prospects for making further progress were good, she said, “because the public will demand it, regardless of politics.”

Little change seen for US biotechnology policy – despite fears on Monsanto links

Despite allegations by some in the US anti-biotechnology lobby that the Bush Administration will be cosy with Monsanto and other major biotech corporations, the little evidence thus far available suggests it will strike a pose very similar to that of the previous Clinton Administration when it comes to biotech food issues. The leading officials of both US political parties have strikingly similar, supportive views about agricultural biotechnology.

Critics are quick to point out that the new secretary of agriculture, Ann Veneman, had been a director of biotech developer Calgene, a Monsanto subsidiary, and that attorney-general John Ashcroft had received political campaign contributions from Monsanto when he was a US senator from Missouri, the state in which Monsanto keeps its headquarters. As a senator, Ashcroft frequently adopted the positions of farm organizations and industry. Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services who has jurisdiction over the Food and Drug Administration, was a biotech booster as governor of Wisconsin.

However, similar ties had existed between the Clinton Administration and Monsanto. Former US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, who had managed Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, became a director of Monsanto after leaving government service. Former Democratic Congressman Tony Coelho, once a lobbyist for Monsanto, was close to Clinton and briefly served as manager of Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 campaign for president. And one-time Congressman Toby Moffett of Connecticut, later a vice president of Monsanto, was a vocal campaigner for Gore last year. Marcia Hale, Monsanto’s international regulatory director in 1998, was a top assistant in the Clinton White House.

Coincidentally, Veneman and former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, now US ambassador to the UN food agencies in Rome, have expressed remarkably comparable views about the role of biotechnology in increasing food production in developing countries. Both Veneman, in a speech in October 2000, and McGovern, in a book published in January 2001, endorsed the views of former Nigerian agriculture minister Hassan Adamu. The Nigerian had strongly admonished “well-meaning but extremely misguided attempts by European and North American groups that are advising Africans to be wary of agricultural biotechnology.” He warned, “If we take their alarmist warnings to heart, millions of Africans will suffer and possibly die.”

By James C. Webster, former assistant secretary for governmental and public affairs, US Department of Agriculture; Editor, The Webster Agricultural Letter