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ELIMINATE FOOLISH U.S. RULES BUT MODERNIZE FOOD SAFETY

SHARE ELIMINATE FOOLISH U.S. RULES BUT MODERNIZE FOOD SAFETY

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency once required that dirt at a hazardous waste site be clean enough to eat 245 days of the year.

- Federal regulators once ordered a Kansas City bank to put a Braille keypad on a drive-through automatic teller machine - presumably for blind drivers.- The U.S. Department of Interior prevented a California man from clearing brush from around a home on the grounds that eliminating the brush would disturb the rare kangaroo rat. The home was subsequently destroyed by a brush fire.

These are just a few of the many horror stories that explain why the House of Representatives has already passed and the Senate is close to approving reform legislation designed to rein in some of the excesses of federal regulation.

The need for some such reforms should be apparent not just from a variety of excesses but from the fact that in addition to the taxes involved in administering all the red tape, current regulations cost businesses an estimated $430 billion to $850 billion a year. Those business costs are passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices.

Hence the move in Congress to give industry more ways to challenge regulations in the courts and to make regulators conduct detailed comparisons of a rule's cost against its potential benefits.

But when it comes to many health and safety regulations, Americans certainly get their money's worth. Who, for example, wants to go back to the days of eating uninspected pork?

That's why the Senate was wise to back off from its reform efforts to the extent of protecting existing health and safety laws - and why the House should follow suit.

But just safeguarding the status quo is not enough. What's also needed is a halt to congressional efforts to delay and perhaps even scuttle a badly needed updating of the nation's archaic "sniff and poke" method of inspecting meat and poultry.

That method, initiated in 1907, still persists even though modern science has developed more sophisticated and accurate inspection techniques. Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to bring food inspections up to speed, some in Congress and industry are fighting the change just because it would cost companies and consumers some money.

But the proposed improvements hardly represent an impetuous rush to regulate. The National Academy of Sciences recommended similar changes in 1985 and the USDA started studying possible new standards for meat and poultry inspection in 1989.

Meanwhile, contaminated meat and poultry are responsible for an estimated 4,000 deaths a year - mostly among the young, the old and the sick - plus five million illnesses annually.

The risk of food poisoning is still statistically small, considering that the food industry processes 130 million head of livestock and 170 billion birds a year. But the proposed new techniques could reduce the risks even further, at a cost to consumers that the USDA estimates at only 0.2 cents a pound.

What a bargain! Clearly, some federal regulations go too far and need to be curbed. Just as clearly, Congress should let the proposed new food inspection standards go forward.