MEAT SAFETY IN SPOTLIGHT AT UPCOMING CONFERENCE

CHARLOTTE -- Though there have been no reports to date in the United States of the same animal diseases sweeping Europe, the possibility of U.S. outbreaks is very much on the minds of industry representatives scheduled to attend the Annual Meat Conference here, April 22-24.In fact, it was only two weeks ago that the red alert went up involving hogs at a North Carolina farm, just east of Raleigh. The

CHARLOTTE -- Though there have been no reports to date in the United States of the same animal diseases sweeping Europe, the possibility of U.S. outbreaks is very much on the minds of industry representatives scheduled to attend the Annual Meat Conference here, April 22-24.

In fact, it was only two weeks ago that the red alert went up involving hogs at a North Carolina farm, just east of Raleigh. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rushed tissue samples to its testing facility on Plum Island off the coast of New York and quickly determined that the dead pigs were not afflicted with foot and mouth disease (FMD).

"There are three other diseases that look just like foot and mouth disease," said Dr. Lester Crawford, director of the Georgetown Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, Washington. "So, the fact that we'll see suspected cases pop up from time to time shouldn't be surprising."

Crawford, who will talk about the state of U.S. food safety at the AMC's opening general session, kicks off an afternoon of food safety-related discussions at the show. Another highlight of the afternoon includes a panel discussion of meat and poultry quality and safety, moderated by Dr. Patrick Hadden, director of technical services for Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va. Speakers will include Dr. Gary Smith, professor at Colorado State University; Dr. Scott Eilert, director of research, pork for Excel Corporation; and Dr. Patricia Curtis, professor of poultry and egg processing and product technology, at North Carolina State University.

For his part, Crawford said he has a high level of confidence in the ability of the U.S. government and meat industry to prevent the kinds of outbreaks that have led to mass slaughter of European livestock.

"We have had systems in place for years and I think we're well prepared to head off anything that might hurt the meat industry or endanger consumers," he said, referring to both FMD and mad cow disease, the human variant of which has claimed the lives of some 100 consumers in England, France and Ireland.

"The U.S. almost has a fail-safe system, and though nothing is 100% safe, we're close to it," he said, adding that there has been a high level of voluntary cooperation between the industry and government agencies like the USDA, U.S. Customs Service and the Centers for Disease Control.

Crawford was the USDA's representative on a mad cow disease task force back in 1988, after the White House ordered U.S. regulatory and public health agencies to develop a master plan for preventing a domestic outbreak, and containing one if it did ever occur. Crawford left the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service 10 years ago.

A similar plan is in place for FMD, though the last significant outbreak on U.S. soil was back in 1929. Aside from federal safeguards -- sanitizing shoes at ports of entry and meat-sniffing beagles in customs lounges -- Crawford noted that many states are undertaking their own initiatives that go above and beyond these measures [see story, next page].

He noted that the proximity of one country to another in Europe hasn't helped contain FMD, especially since the formation of the European Union, which promotes more open trade among the countries.

"In Europe, Belgium is like Georgia and England is like Alabama," he said. "The difference is that here in the U.S., we have much stricter controls on interstate transportation and commerce. Each lot of livestock is inspected by an approved veterinarian before it moves out."

Crawford added that after the countries contain both animal-borne diseases, the European Union will likely enact more stringent regulations governing the transportation and trading of livestock across national borders.