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Published: Monday, 4/9/2001

A beef with Bush

What a difference a day makes in the Bush administration when one of its retrogressive health and safety proposals backfires big time. The President campaigned on a slogan to “leave no child behind,” but his administration was willing to put the welfare of school children at risk by cutting corners on inspection of school hamburger.

The Agriculture Department announced plans to scrap a Clinton-era program requiring random tests for salmonella in ground beef purchased for school lunches. The U.S. meat industry found a sympathetic ear in the Bush White House after lobbying vigorously against the tests, which it claimed are burdensome and unscientific.

At least George W. is consistent. These are essentially the same arguments the administration has made in ditching regulations on carbon dioxide emissions and arsenic levels in water.

Ken Clayton, acting head of the department's Agricultural Marketing Service - which buys food for federal nutrition programs - said testing for salmonella wasn't foolproof, and tightening existing government standards in slaughterhouses and processing plants would be just as effective.

Moreover, the government would allow schools to serve beef that had been irradiated, a procedure that eliminates salmonella as well as other harmful bacteria, but is controversial among consumers.

Critics immediately objected, accusing the administration of buckling to pressure from the meat industry at the expense of school children. Their welfare, argued consumer advocates, would be compromised by relaxing inspections and testing on meat going to millions of schools nationwide.

Carol Tucker Foreman, an Agriculture Department official in the Carter administration, notes the agency “caught 5 million pounds of meat that had salmonella in it last year that they wouldn't have caught and they won't catch it next year.”

Before the end of the day, the White House distanced itself from the losing proposition with a hasty turnabout. Spokesman Ari Fleischer insisted the proposal - which he claimed originated in “the lower level of the Agriculture Department” - was, curiously, not shared by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman or the administration.

Official Bush policy - for now -is that every effort will be made to ensure that food supplies for children are as safe as possible. The air they breathe and the water they drink are another matter.



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