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MODERNIZE MEAT INSPECTION - NOW

More than 6.5 million Americans suffer from food poisoning each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and 9,000 people die of it.

That's because federal meat inspectors, who examined 130 million head of livestock and more than seven-billion birds, still rely on archaic methods that involve only seeing, touching and smelling the meat.But harmful bacteria are microscopic and can be detected only through time-consuming laboratory tests.

A few months ago, this page called on Congress to overhaul the laws on this subject by requiring more modern, scientific methods of inspecting meat and poultry.

We also suggested that the U.S. Food and Safety Inspection Service be authorized to recall meat and poultry suspected of being contaminated instead of relying on food processing firms to act voluntarily. And we urged that ranch, feedlot, slaughter and processing facilities be required to maintain detailed records so that problem carcasses could be traced.

So it's encouraging to see the solid step that was taken in this direction with the introduction this week of a White House-backed bill by Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Though industry groups oppose the bill, which includes civil fines up to $100,000 a day for each violation, it is supported by consumer groups - and they clearly have the better argument.

It's simply unconscionable to put private profits ahead of public health and safety. Yet, according to government records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the U.S. Department of Agriculture weakened poultry inspection requirements six times in the past 15 years in response to industry lobbying efforts.

The Daschle bill would put Washington well on the road to getting its priorities and values straight when it comes to meat inspection. If Congress can't enact the measure before it adjourns next month, the lawmakers should put this bill near the top of their agenda for 1995.