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Food regs may ease

Thomas Lee (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) -- A food fight may not be the most original way to characterize the relationship between the Clinton administration and U.S. food retailers and manufacturers, but it's a fitting one nonetheless.

Over the past eight years, the two sides butted heads on almost every major regulatory issue concerning food safety, from meat inspections to food labeling. But with a certain Texan now in the Oval Office, the once-acrimonious relationship between the White House and the multibillion-dollar industry could very well turn friendlier.

That major food companies have considerably more clout in a pro-business White House is hardly disputed. Industry trade associations, led by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Bush's presidential campaign and campaigns of other Republicans. Top industry leaders now serve on Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's advisory team and will inevitably have something to say about who is appointed to such key posts as the Food and Drug Administration chief and the Agriculture Department's Undersecretary for Food Safety. That clout will be of particular importance to St. Louis, home to major companies like Earthgrains and Aurora Foods and retailers like Schnucks.

But with food safety scares like mad cow disease and biotech corn high on the public radar, experts say Bush will have to walk a fine line between deregulating the industry and undermining public confidence in the nation's food supply.

"So far, the Bush administration has done nothing I can call anti-industry and pro-consumer," said Jackson Nickerson, a professor of organizational strategy at Washington University's Olin School of Business. But food safety is "one of those rare instances when they have to be careful."

Nevertheless, a Republican White House and Congress must be particularly appealing to industry executives, given what they see as eight years of intrusive and stifling regulations by a president determined to make protecting the nation's food supply a key part of his legacy.

Although the U.S. food supply is considered among the safest in the world, a fact often noted by the industry, the Clinton administration was not so optimistic. A Food Safety Strategic Plan released by the Council of Food Safety, a task force created by Bill Clinton, concluded: "foodborne illnesses continue to take a staggering toll on public health. Every year, millions of Americans become sick and many die from foodborne pathogens." The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 Americans die each year from foodborne illness, figures the industry says are grossly inflated.

Those numbers, according to the Council of Food Safety, reflect such consumer trends as greater consumption of poultry, seafood and fresh fruit and vegetables and the importation of foods from around the world. As a result, Clinton pushed several food safety initiatives including:

* Enhancing the FDA's authority to recall meat and to conduct random inspections of ground beef at supermarkets
* Stepping up inspections of imported seafood
* Banning foreign fruits and vegetables if they do not meet the safety standards of the U.S.

The moves won high praise from food safety advocacy groups.

"President Clinton has done more to improve food safety as any president since Theodore Roosevelt," said Caroline Smith-DeWaal, director of food safety programs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

The industry, however, has denounced the regulations as unnecessary, wasteful and which would cost businesses millions of dollars. The Food Marketing Institute, made up of the nation's largest supermarkets and food retailers, has been particularly hostile to the regulations. And for good reason, said Doug Adams, a grocery consultant for Illinois-based Prime Consulting Group.

In many ways, it would cost supermarkets much more money than manufacturers to comply with the regulations, Adams said. That's because a growing variety of food, like deli meats and vegetables, are prepared within the stores.

"A bigger portion of food is made by the retailer," he said. "The retailer is a big manufacturer." And unlike a manufacturer, which may own a few plants, Adams added, a supermarket chain operates several stores, all of which are subject to food safety laws.

The last straw, however, came in the final days of Clinton's presidency when his administration issued a flurry of last-minute food safety regulations, including mandating nutrition labels for food and poultry and requiring fruit and vegetable juice processors to adopt a program to reduce the amount of pathogens.

"The administration was trying to accomplish in less than two days what it could not get done in eight years," said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute. "The supermarket industry will work closely with the (new) administration to help undo whatever damage caused by these proposals."

Hammonds may soon get his chance. He, along with John Block, president of the Food Distributors International; Manly Molpus, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association; and Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, were named in January by Bush to a team advising Veneman, the agriculture secretary.

"I cannot underestimate the relief I feel not to have to fight heavy-handed government intrusion in our business," Block told the trade publication Supermarket News. "Instead of being on the defense, like we were for eight years, we've got the ball and we're going to run an offense."

Such talk makes Smith-DeWaal shudder.

"It's probably our worst nightmare for the regulations to be rolled back," she said, noting that the Agriculture Department advisory team included no consumer groups.

So far, Bush has not disappointed his backers, successfully repealing an ergonomics standards rule and freezing an order that denied federal contracts to companies thought to violate labor laws, two moves strongly supported by the food industry groups.

"We are impressed with the Bush administration," said Sue Ferenc, vice president of regulation policy for the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

But in a setback to the industry, the Bush administration largely left in place a last-minute rule enacted by Clinton that would require testing for Listeria, a possibly fatal strain of bacteria found in some factories that produce ready-to-eat meals. Smith-DeWaal believes that, for all of the food industry's new clout, the Bush administration will not, at least for now, tamper with food safety laws, especially in the wake of mad-cow and foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in Europe.

"They don't want to give food safety away to the corporations because of the crisis in consumer confidence in Europe," she said.

(c) 2001 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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