The Front

Gagging on Beef

A FORMER OFFICER of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has come forward to reveal that the USDA ordered inspection agents to release to the public beef carcasses that may be infected with tuberculosis (TB). A secret change in beef inspection standards has allowed carcasses infected with TB to be shipped to consumers, according to Dr. Wilfred Rosario Sr., a 16-year veterinary medical officer for FSIS in Southern California.

 Rosario recently disclosed that all area FSIS veterinary meat inspectors were verbally instructed on May 19, 1989 to no longer condemn certain cattle carcasses confirmed by laboratory analysis as displaying symptoms of TB. No proposed change in the standards for condemning TB carcasses has been published in the Federal Register, and no written communication on the change was ever received by FSIS employees.

 "Meat that under current law must be condemned due to confirmed TB symptoms is now being routinely released for people to eat," says Ken Morrison, an attorney assisting the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a Washington, D.C.-based whistleblower support organization that is representing Rosario. "This secret, off-the- books change in inspection standards has created an illegal risk to public health and safety."

 TB-infected beef has been routinely condemned in the United States since 1906. According to Morrison, federal inspection regulations adopted twenty years ago stipulate that a cattle carcass may only be passed for human food if the carcass is found free of TB lesions during a visual inspection. If the inspection reveals evidence of lesions, the inspector is authorized to condemn the carcass immediately. The 1989 order communicated to the inspectors, however, that they were to condemn only those carcasses for which laboratory tests found TB bacilli on small tissue samples.

Rosario charges that he was ordered to release a carcass that displayed markings he diagnosed as TB lesions. Disregarding the results of a microscopic laboratory test confirming that the lesions were in fact characteristic of those caused by TB, his supervisor would not allow the carcass to be condemned, citing the new policy. Rosario was subsequently presented with a cash award by the agency "for recognizing lesions of tuberculosis" on the very carcass which had long since been shipped to and consumed by the public.

 Jim Greene, spokesperson for FSIS says, "We are exhaustively looking into the alleged charges. ... We cannot comment on whether or not there has been a change in standards because we are still in the process of investigating." According to Morrison, however, the USDA has repeatedly defended the new policy permitting the release of infected carcasses.

Department of Agriculture officials have refused to meet with Rosario to discuss his concerns, even after the U.S. Office of Special Counsel found a "substantial likelihood" that Rosario was correct and ordered then-Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter to investigate. In a three-and-a-quarter page report to the Special Counsel released in October 1990, Yeutter, now President Bush's deputy campaign chair, simply dismissed Rosario's concerns as "an apparent misunderstanding" of the policy and the terminology used by the agency.

Morrison sharply criticizes the report, claiming that Yeutter sidesteps essential issues in his analysis. For example, Yeutter fails to address the fact that the policy requires the release of carcasses when the laboratory is unable to find any germ that explains the presence of TB-like lesions - meaning that the test has been inconclusive. As Morrison says, "The defense that an inconclusive test result means lesions may not be tuberculosis begs the question," since federal regulation prohibits the release of a carcass unless it is "found free" of TB lesions.

A November 1990 letter from Tom Devine, GAP legal director, to Donald Di Julio, of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, notes, "Current regulations ... prohibit the release of carcasses not æfound free' of TB lesions - an affirmative burden clearly not being definitively met under the new policy."

 Yeutter points out in his report that a subsequent culture test of the carcass released by Rosario failed to demonstrate the presence of the TB germ. Morrison counters that the carcass was shipped out two months before the test results were available. "The administration's doublespeak responses appear to be intentional attempts to avoid the real issues in order to deceive the public," says Morrison.

Devine's letter to Di Julio outlines several questions about the TB policy, including whether the policy has been implemented nationally or just regionally; what is the scientific basis for implementing the new policy; and under what legal authority was the new policy implemented. Devine says that Yeutter's report fails to address any of these issues.

Morrison says that the change in beef inspection standards is particularly shocking in light of the rise of tuberculosis among the U.S. population. "The law imposes burdens on our national food inspection system in order to protect the public from diseased products," he says. "The Bush administration has no legal right to expose consumers to any increased risk from meat that should be condemned, even if the motive is to save the meat industry a little money."

- Julie Gozan and Holley Knaus


Alaska's Troubled Waters

ANCHORAGE - In order to accomodate the gold mining and pulp industries, the pro- development administration of Alaska Governor Wally Hickel is proposing to put human health and environmental protection on the line by significantly lowering certain state water quality standards, proposing weak human health criteria for other standards and allowing for the continued operation of facilities that are violating state law.

New draft wastewater permits issued this spring by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan to comply with Alaska's existing water quality standards. According to the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), a Juneau-based environmental organization, however, the mills have never complied with the standards [see Razing Alaska: The Destruciton of the Tongass Forest," Multinational Monitor, July/Aug 1990 ]. SEACC claims that, instead of enforcing state regulations, the Hickel administration sped up an ongoing review of state water quality standards in response to the EPA's action and proposed regulatory changes which would allow the mills and other violators to continue polluting at their present levels.

The Alaska state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) proposals "are quite clearly driven by the interests of the pulp mills and the gold mines," says Anthony Turrini, staff counselor for the National Wildlife Federation in Anchorage. The most significant relate to the setting of standards based on human health criteria.

The proposed standards would allow the Sitka and Ketchikan mills to dump 85 times more dioxin than recommended by the EPA, and would permit gold mines to release 250 times more arsenic than the EPA's standards. The proposals also allow industry to dump 10 times the agency's recommended standard for chloroform.

 According to David Sturdevant, water quality standards coordinator for the DEC, the EPA's most stringent recommended risk level for dioxin, chloroform and arsenic is set at a factor of 10-6 (meaning a one in 1,000,000 chance of getting cancer over a lifetime of exposure to a particular substance). The DEC has proposed adopting a less stringent 10-5 risk factor (one in 100,000 chance). Sturdevant points out that more than one half of U.S. states have adopted the less stringent standard.

 Sturdevant says that determining risk levels is a complex process based on scientific data which is not necessarily conclusive. "There is no book you can look at," he says. The DEC has factored other considerations into its decision to adopt the higher risk factor. "This is a social and economic policy decision," says Sturdevant. "The state does recognize the economic concerns involved in [industries] having to meet stricter standards."

Sturdevant points out that the mills in Sitka and Ketchikan provide almost 25 percent of the economic base of those areas. "The Department believes we must be sensitive to the effects of [stricter] standards on those mills and on the people that work there," he says.

 The Hickel administration has also proposed changing the definition of "mixing zones," which are legalized pollution zones where standards for pollutants may be exceeded. Industry is currently prohibited from dumping potential and proven carcinogens for both humans and aquatic life into mixing zones. According to SEACC, the proposed changes would allow for the discharge of potential carcinogens, by imposing a prohibition only if the chemical were a "proven" carcinogen to humans.

Yet another Hickel and DEC proposal would eliminate the regulation of all hydrocarbons in water and permit toxic concentrations in unlined tailing ponds and other "wastewater treatment facilities" to exceed state standards.

Environmentalists and concerned citizens have mobilized opposition to the revisions during a recently extended public comment period. Their input, however, is likely to have little influence on DEC decisions regarding the standards. "Public comment only has a real influence if the government has an open mind," says Turrini. "In this case the DEC already has some very clear objectives."

The EPA must approve the final standards and it has expressed concern over some of the state revisions. An October 5 memo from Sally Marquis, EPA Region 10 water quality standards coordinator, to Sturdevant spells out the federal agency's reservations about many DEC proposed changes, including those for regulating hydrocarbons and mixing zones and for human health criteria for arsenic and dioxin. The memo states that certain revised standards for arsenic and dioxin do not comply with the Clean Water Act.

 Environmentalists fear that Region 10 officials and the DEC will reach a compromise over the course of the public comment period, and that the EPA will eventually approve greatly weakened standards. Marquis's memo states, "We are hoping that we can resolve many of these concerns during the remainder of the public comment period." And SEACC's Marna Schwartz notes that the EPA's concerns were only made public under great pressure from environmentalists. "It's pretty amazing that both agencies felt that this should be kept confidential, especially in a state where the largest employer - commercial fishing - is completely dependent upon clean water to keep it in business," she says.

- Holley Knaus