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course, we consumers have no idea whether a meat or poultry product is contaminated when we buy it. There is simply too great a chance that a meat and poultry product may be contaminated despite its attractive appearance and despite the label which says ❝USDA Inspection and Approved."
What further complicates the situation is the fact that there does not appear to be a quick method or procedure to determine if a meat or poultry product is contaminated with salmonella or other bacteria. A suspicious product may be sent to a laboratory for analysis, but the results don't come back for a few days, and by that time it is too late. The rest of the batch has likely been shipped. Another complicating factor is that there are over 1,400 strainsvarieties of salmonella, some harmful to human beings and some more virulent than others. Although scientists are studying these micro-organisms, we still don't know as much as we would like to in terms of toxicity.
Add to that the information we are uncovering that some salmonella are developing resistance to antibiotics. Thus, a person who is unlucky enough to contract sickness from a resistant bacteria cannot be effectively treated with antibiotics.
Another part of the problem is chemical contamination of meat and poultry. Again, there are multitudinal sources where meat animals and poultry can become contaminated mainly from feeds that are contaminated. And, again, these contaminants are invisible to the eye. We don't know enough about these chemicals either. How dangerous are they to human beings?
I know FSIS has established a program to study the hundred most toxic chemicals, and I commend the FSIS for it. But even knowing what is dangerous, we often aren't able to trace contaminated meat and poultry to the source of the contamination.
Since this Subcommittee is concerned about the quality of Government management, we are focusing on the activities of the FSIS, the Food Service Inspection Service. But in the course of this hearing we will learn about the responsibilities of other parties in the food chain, the producers and the feed suppliers, the transporters, the processors, the distributors and retailers, as well as the American consumer.
I'm certain that each of our witnesses share in the common objective that meat and poultry products be absolutely safe for consumption. I hope the information that we hear today will guide us on a course of action to address in a more effective way this very difficult health problem. And when I say us, I don't just mean action of the Congress. This is a problem that requires the consensus and cooperation of all parties in finding the best solution. Senator Cohen.
OPENING STATEMENT OF SENATOR COHEN Senator COHEN. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
I have a fairly lengthy opening statement which I will not read since you covered most, if not all, of the points that I intended to raise. I think that, based upon your statement, it's clear that we have a serious health problem facing this country.
We appropriate approximately $300 million each year for our Food Safety and Inspection Service program, and the question is, "are we doing the job that we're supposed to be doing and the one we are paying for?"
I think that you indicated the dramatic increase in cases of reported salmonella poisoning or other related food-borne illnesses23,000 cases nine years ago, and 56,000 cases as recently as 1985. So, in a period of nine years, it has almost tripled-it presents a serious problem.
I don't want to overstate it, but I also don't want to minimize the significance of the problem facing this country. There are reports which indicate or suggest that it may be as high as 6.5 to 8 million cases annually, some of which are unreported, and that as many as 9,000 people dying annually. So it's a serious problem and it exposes those who are most vulnerable. The infants, the aged and those who are suffering from immune deficiencies are the most vulnerable to food poisoning.
We have a situation in which Federal inspectors are saying that the system has broken down. There have been cut-backs on manpower forced by Gramm-Rudman-Hollings target reductions. There has been a speeding up of the line of production to meet the increased demand, and I've seen some of these operations and, frankly, I must tell you it reminds me of the old line, you know, "Stop the production line, I'm dancing as fast as I can."
I don't know how Federal inspectors can possibly be expected to keep up and visually inspect those carcasses as they go by at an ever increasing pace, and it almost seems absurd to think that we have inspectors on the line that are going to be able to keep up with that kind of pace.
We have complaints about safety being muffled or strangled by the bureaucracy, that the FSIS is becoming too close to the very industry it's supposed to be overseeing, and then we have industry officials who say: Wait a minute, this is simply a case of the unions who are being forced back in terms of their numbers, cut-backs being mandated by Congress because of budget cuts and these people are simply complaining because of the loss of thei jobs and there is no basis for the allegations which are being made.
The purpose of the hearings is to find out exactly where the truth lies, but I must tell you that I am concerned that this stamp of USDA is no longer a stamp of approval. It has become a somewhat misleading empty gesture if what I believe to be the case is in fact occurring.
I think we have to at least find out what this stamp of approval really means and whether we are misleading our citizens into believing that the Federal Government is doing something when in fact it's not.
So, I appreciate your calling the hearings at my request. I know that there has been some suggestion that we are trying to point at one particular industry. This is not an effort to point at the poultry industry or any other industry. We want to find out what is wrong with the nature of our inspection system. Are there changes that have to be made, manpower that has to be increased or techniques that have to be adopted. It's not designed to make a scapegoat of any one industry, particularly not the poultry industry.
If there is a problem there, we have to correct it, but I suspect it applies to the meat industry as well and to a host of other of our food supplies.
I thank you, Mr. Chairman, for calling the hearing. [Senator Cohen's prepared statement follows:]
PREPARED STATEMENT OF SENATOR COHEN
Today the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management is exploring an issue affecting all of our nation's consumers, namely, how well the federal government is doing its job of ensuring the health and safety of the food it inspects. Since as far back as 1907, following revelations in Upton Sinclair's book, "The Jungle," of atrocious, unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry, the Congress has found it essential to protect the health and welfare of consumers by assuring that meat products distributed to them are wholesome and unadulterated. For the past 30 years, the Congress has mandated that this same protection be extended to poultry and poultry products.
The task of protecting the public's health and safety in these areas has been delegated by Congress to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, known as the FSIS, within the Department of Agriculture. With a field force numbering approximately 8,000 and a technical and scientific staff, the FSIS reviews meat an poultry plants across the United States, monitors the inspection programs of over 30 foreign countries, and reinspects imported meat and poultry products entering the U.S. market. Additionally, since 1972, the FSIS had conducted a comprehensive program to educate consumers about food safety.
While the Congress appropriates over $300 million annually to the FSIS to inspect meat and poultry sold to consumers, serious questions have arisen over whether the FSIS is doing all it can to prevent the sale of meat or poultry that is unwholesome, spoiled, or deleterious to health. In 1985, and agains as recently as this week, the National Academy of Sciences has issued critical reports on the FSIS inspection program, concluding that while the FSIS has been effective in removing grossly damaged and diseased animals and products from the food supply, the federal inspection process does little, if anything, to protect the public from current major health risks, namely microbial and chemical contaminants in poultry and meat. This finding, which has been echoed by consumer groups and scientists, raised the question of whether our federal inspection program, which relies on visual inspection of meat and poultry, is missing the mark of the real food health threats that are facing the public today.
Recently, the performance of the FSIS has been thrust into the public limelight due to concern over a dramatic increase in salmonella food poisoning cases and related foodborne illnesses. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, over 56,000 cases of salmonella food poisoning were reported in 1985, representing a sharp increase over the 23,000 cases reported nine years earlier. Other studies and scientists estimate that the actual number of foodborne illnesses, most of which go unreported, may range as high as 6.5 million to eight million cases annually, with 9,000 persons dying from such illnesses every year. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that over three million of these cases can be attributed to meat and poultry products, which are the same products that have been inspected by the FSIS. Salmonella and other foodborne contaminants can pose serious health risks, and can be even life threatening to infants, the aged, the malnourished, and those suffering from immune difficiencies. Several press reports have suggested that the increased production of poultry to meet rising consumer demand has been a contributir g factor to the high incidence of salmonella, and that the federal government is not loing enough to protect the public from this health threat.
These stories come at the same time that internal critics of the FSIS, such as inspectors and veterinarians who have hands-on experiences in how the inspection program work, are alleging that a total break-down of the inspection system has occurred. Allegations by inspectors are serious and disturbing, including such charges that the USDA is working more to accommodate industry profits and increased production than to prevent death and illnesses of consumers. Inspectors and veterinarians cite problems of lax enforcement against plants and severe staff shortages that overburden the inspection system. Some inspectors charge that they have had their comments and recommendations about the quality of particular plants in which they have worked changed by agency review teams or ignored by agency management, and that sanitation reports of plants may have been falsified by the USDA or companies to hide the fact that sanitation violations have gone uncorrected. Many
of the inspectors further allege that the agency has taken retaliatory actions against them when they have gone public with their concerns. Unfortunately, many inspectors no longer believe that they will be backed up by USDA management when they seek to enforce the law. Today, the Subcommittee will hear testimony from inspectors about such experiences they have had in the field.
The result of these external and internal criticisms is, in the words of FSIS Administrator Donald Houston, that we are nearing a "credibility gulch about processing and inspection that, even if unfounded, could directly affect the public's confidence in their poultry supply." Equally of concern to the Congress is that the public could lose faith in how well the government is performing its duty to deliver wholesome and safe meat and poultry to consumers' tables.
There are many responses to the charges levied in the press and by critics of FSIS. Some dismiss the recent concerns as an unjustified public outcry, while others believe that the FSIS must reevaluate its management and enforcement strategies. The answers on how to deal with this problem are equally varied, ranging from calls for more consumer education on how to guard against contaminants through hygiene practices to recommendations that the FSIS employ microbiological testing for invisible contaminants. Still others recommend that the poultry and meat industries alter their processing procedures to reduce the spread of such contamination. Today's hearing will provide an opportunity to review the problems now facing the meat and poultry inspection program and to hear several views on how to address these concerns. We will also question whether there are ways that the inspection service can work cooperatively with the poultry and meat industries to improve the quality of these products sold in the United States.
I look forward to hearing the testimony from today's witnesses to determine what steps we can take to improve the safety of the meat and poultry products that we consume and to guard against a return to the "Jungle."
Senator LEVIN. Thank you very much, Senator Cohen.
OPENING STATEMENT OF SENATOR PRYOR
Senator PRYOR. Well, Mr. Chairman, I appreciate you calling this hearing. And I would like to be very honest and upfront with you, Mr. Chairman, and our distinguished ranking member about my interest in this subject.
One out of every 12 people in the State of Arkansas today are employed because of the poultry industry. So I'm vitally interested in this hearing.
I'm also vitally interested in this hearing because in all due respect to both of my good friends who have made statements this morning, you've discussed only one aspect of this problem, food problems not generically, but you've talked specifically about the problems in inspections of meat and poultry. No mention of fish, no mention of Maine lobsters, no mention of shell fish, no mention of shrimp where there is no inspection program.
Senator Cohen says this program is broken down in the meat inspection industry and poultry industry. Well, at least we have an inspection program. But in some mysterious way there is no inspection of fish in this country.
I do come from a poultry producing State, Mr. Chairman, and our poultry producing industry stands four square behind the most rigid, efficient and thorough inspection program that we can have in this country. Even the industry's official response to the National Academy of Sciences' report issued Tuesday was a very, very positive response, a response that pledged cooperation, a response that indicated even more than a willingness to cooperate, and a response I think that was very mature and certainly very, very important.
Mr. Chairman, here is a newspaper ad,"Be a Safe Food Handler," just recently put out by one of the major grocery chains of America. Now they didn't put this advertisement in all the papers in this area or around the country just to try to get people to wash their food or to cook it at a certain temperature. They did it for a very specific reason and that reason was, Mr. Chairman, that they recently had an outbreak of food poisoning because many consumers bought lasagne in their stores that was contaminated with salmonella.
This is a very reputable chain of supermarkets. They take pride in maintaining rigid quality assurance and sanitation procedures. Nonetheless, they encountered a problem which made them realize while such procedures are vitally important, consumers must also be adequately educated about the safe handling of all perishable foods, not just frozen lasagne, but all meat, all poultry and yes, all seafood.
The Food Safety Inspection Service, which is being examined today, inspects meat and poultry but does not have the jurisdiction to inspect fish. The Food Safety Inspection Service has 8,000 inspectors, veterinarians and others who watch over 7,200 plants. The Food and Drug Administration which oversees processed foods has the equivalent of 400 full-time inspectors who oversee 60,000 plants.
We do have a problem, Mr. Chairman, but the problem doesn't just relate to one particular industry. We are going to hear people testify here today that we need to improve the food inspection process, and I look forward to that testimony. If there are problems with that process, I feel very strongly that we need to correct them and we need to correct them now.
I'm going to be up front once again and state that our industry is going to be on the cutting edge of making whatever improvements are necessary. We must have an inspection service that gives our consumer absolute and total confidence in the food that they eat.
Mr. Chairman, I'll tell you something, and I just want to be very blunt about it, if you eat a chicken that is uncooked, if you eat a raw chicken, you're going to get sick. [Laughter.]
A lot of our problem has to do with consumer education, and we want to talk about some of that.
Mr. Chairman, I would like for my full statement to be placed in the record. I thank you, and I yield.
Senator LEVIN. Thank you, Senator Pryor, and of course your full statement will be made part of the record.
[Senator Pryor's prepared statement follows:]
PREPARED STATEMENT OF SENATOR PRYOR
Mr. Chairman, we are here today because we all want to make sure the food we eat is not only wholesome and nutritious, but is also safe to eat.
Today and in future discussions, we need to determine the federal government's proper role in inspecting and regulating the foods we eat, as well as the education of consumers as to the safest way to handle food once it leaves the grocery shelves. The need for consumer education is extremely important. Obviously, the federal government can't regulate our food all the way to our mouths. And recent statistics show that many of our contamination problems occur once the food leaves the store. Just this week I came across a full-page advertisement in a Washington newspaper which attempted to tell people how to be "a safe food-handler."