A Raw Deal For Meat Packers?

THE MEAT INDUSTRY IS tussling with the feds over the best way to root out contamination. The backdrop: public fear over food poisoning, such as the 1993 outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants that left two customers dead. At issue: The Clinton Administration wants the industry to fork over $106 million yearly to help pay for the 9,000 inspectors who currently are on the government payroll--at no cost to meat and poultry processors. The industry is balking at the proposal, saying it's not a good use of money because the inspectors can't spot some impurities visually.

The industry puts more faith in new microbial testing technology, coming online over the next three years--gizmos the Agriculture Dept. strongly endorses. Eager to calm public concerns, the meat packers are even willing to pick up the $734 million tab for the devices and other new plant-cleanliness procedures.

But the industry resists underwriting the USDA inspectors, a question that likely will come before Congress this year. Says Sara Clarke, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, representing meat processors: "Don't make us pay for a dinosaur program." The USDA, though, argues that the inspectors will still be needed to validate the high-tech tests.

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