The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"We are more apt to catch the vices of others than their virtues, as disease is far more contagious than health."... ...Charles Caleb Colton

Commentary of the Day - April 8, 2001:   Salmonella Burgers!  Is That Dumb-ya or Not?

During the past two-and-a-half months Dubya has been doing his best to reward the business interests that supported him in his quest for the White House.  Even though he got a late start  in putting together his team owing to the Florida election debacle, he promised to hit the ground running when he got to Washington.  He sure has lived up to that promise.

In less than three months a host of federal rules and regulations aimed at protecting the environment and the health and safety of Americans have either bitten the dust or are on their way out.  These include regulations to reduce repetitive stress injuries, regulations to prevent contractors who violate federal labor and fraud laws from bidding on government contracts, regulations to reduce the amount of arsenic in drinking water, regulations that would reduce CO2 emissions and other "greenhouse" gases, regulations that would increase the energy efficiency of electric appliances, etc.  And, of course, there is that little business of opening up the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

To be sure, there are arguments on both sides of each of these cases.  However, it seems that business interests have been paramount in almost all decisions made by the current administration.  For example, the Texas energy bandits have taken advantage of energy shortfalls in California to gouge consumers mightily.  Electric energy is being sold to the state's power grid on the spot market at up to ten times the cost of production.  So far, Bush's Federal Energy Commission has done nothing to control these windfall profits.

However, it looks like Dubya and his cronies finally went a bit too far.  It seems that for the past year or so the government has had a "zero-tolerance" policy for salmonella in the ground beef destined for school lunch programs.  Since that policy was established some 120 million pounds of ground beef have been tested for salmonella, and about 5 million pounds of were found to contain the bacteria and were rejected.

Under pressure from the beef industry, the Department of Agriculture had proposed to eliminate the requirements for salmonella testing.  They would have been replaced by rules requiring the tracking of a harmless strain of e coli bacteria that presumably would serve as an indicator of poor hygiene during the preparation of ground beef.  The Department also proposed rules that would have allowed meat processors to irradiate beef in order to sterilize it.  The meat packers had argued that salmonella testing was too costly, and that the bacteria is killed in the cooking process provided that the hamburgers are cooked until the internal temperature reaches 160º F.

Consumer advocates had argued that the chief danger from salmonella contamination comes not from undercooking the burgers, but in the food handling process itself.  In busy school cafeterias it is relatively easy for staff to accidentally cross-contaminate food items, such as lettuce and tomatoes, that will not be cooked before being served.  This is something that the Irascible Professor agrees happens frequently enough to be cause for concern.

Many of the same consumer advocates have argued against the use of radiation to sterilize meat.  This process uses high doses of gamma radiation to kill bacteria in meat.  Decades of research have shown that this is an entirely safe process that actually would benefit public health if it were widely used.  Unfortunately, the public perception of anything related to radiation is so negative that this process has not been widely adopted.  The irradiation process does not make the beef radioactive, although there is a very slight degradation in nutritional value.

Well, giving the raspberry to labor over ergonomic rules and union contracts is one thing, but messing with the school lunch program is another as G.W. now has learned.  Not since Ronald Reagan and company tried to classify ketchup and relish as vegetables in the federal school lunch program has there been such a reaction.  The Bush administration spent some time this past Thursday in the midst of a full-scale international crisis backpedaling on the school lunch issue.  Bush's press secretary (the appropriately named Ari Fleischer) claimed that this all was the doing of low-level officials in Agriculture, and that the Bush administration would never do anything to jeopardize the health of America's school kids.

Give it another week and they might even reconsider that decision on arsenic in drinking water.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.