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'USDA: Organic Foods May Be More Contamination-Prone' ran the headlines in October 2002. But Elsa Murano, the Under Secretary for Food Safety at the the U. S. Department of Agriculture, who used a World Food Prize symposium attended by hundreds of researchers and government officials from around the world to capture such headlines, has a track record of making statements that suit the interests of giant agri-biz - so much so that a whole series of citizens' organisations came together to oppose her appointment to the USDA.
July 16, 2001
Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman
Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee
328-A Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Chairman Harkin:

We are writing concerning the nomination of Elsa Murano to the position of Under Secretary for Food Safety for the United States Department of Agriculture.

As you know, the role of the Under Secretary for Food Safety is a very important one. The Under Secretary is responsible for enforcing many key laws and administering many key programs intended to maintain the safety and wholesomeness of our food supply. Among these are Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, the Egg Products Inspection Act, the Talmadge-Aiken Act, the Humane Slaughter Act and the Food Safety Research Program.

A microbiologist by training, Murano is the director of the Center for Food Safety at Texas A&M University. On its face, Murano would seem a good fit for the position. However, we have become concerned with the nature of her work at Texas A&M, her ties to industry, and the distorted image of food irradiation that she has presented to the public.

Murano has used her position at Texas A&M to advocate for food irradiation in a manner that we believe has been less than fully responsible. During her presentations at conferences and other events, and in her public statements, she has not presented a complete or balanced view of irradiation. We are concerned that this may be due to the financial ties between her university and the food irradiation industry.

In a Texas A&M press release last June, for example, Murano erroneously compared food irradiation with microwaving. Nothing could be further from the truth. An individual with her level of training and experience should be fully aware that microwaves are non-ionizing, while irradiation uses ionizing radiation, which has far more disrupting effects on food.

One month after Murano made these comments, Texas A&M signed a 10-year research and development deal with the Titan Corporation, a leading food irradiation company that, it should be noted, frequently makes the same erroneous comparison to microwaving. Titan provided the school with millions of dollars worth of irradiation equipment which Texas A&M employees operate at discounted wages or for free and Titan enjoys the economic benefits. The company has stated that this arrangement is worth more than $10 million.

This past April, during a presentation that was subsequently posted on the USDA s website, Murano stated that more than 1,000 research studies have revealed "no significant difference between irradiated and non-irradiated foods in terms of: toxigenicity, pathogencity, or mutagenicity." Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Many studies some of which were funded by the U.S. government have revealed serious health problems in lab animals that ate irradiated food, including premature death, stillbirths, a rare form of cancer, genetic damage, fatal internal bleeding, organ malfunctions and vitamin deficiencies.

And, at a recent meeting of the USDA National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection, Murano suggested that the labels on irradiated eggs could tell consumers that they do not have to cook them as long as non-irradiated eggs. This suggestion deserves serious scrutiny, given the well-documented chemical and nutritional changes that occur in irradiated food. At the same meeting, Murano attempted to gauge the opinion of other panel members about allowing irradiated food in the school lunch program. Given the public outcry over a recent proposal to serve irradiated food to school children, it would appear that Murano's viewpoint on this issue is out of step with the prevailing opinion of Americans.

Murano is also a well-known proponent of the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program for meat inspection, serving as a HACCP
trainer throughout the world. HACCP was originally promoted as a way to enhance traditional inspection by bringing more pathogen testing into
the system. In reality, HACCP shifts the responsibility for ensuring a safe meat supply from government inspectors to the meat industry, and is being used by USDA as a step towards complete industry self-inspection. HACCP s testing program is seriously flawed and the program has curtailed inspectors authority to the point that government meat inspection has been replaced with an industry honor system. Last year the USDA's own Inspector General concluded that under HACCP, the agency has "reduced oversight beyond what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer."

Murano s narrow point of view that irradiation is a panacea to food safety problems and her promotion of HACCP cause us to question her ability to make sound decisions on food policy. Irradiation and HACCP are not silver-bullets. The answer to many food safety challenges lies in slowing line-speeds in our slaughter and processing facilities, and hiring more government inspectors and training them adequately.

We realize, Senator Harkin, that you are a supporter of food irradiation. While we may disagree with your view, I trust that you would agree with our position that the person who becomes Under Secretary for Food Safety should be someone who has the experience and the credibility to fill that job.

At a time when food safety problems cry out for creative, thoughtful solutions, it is extremely important that the American people have every confidence in the person who holds this position. Unfortunately, Murano's track record leaves us greatly concerned that her appointment would not engender this confidence.


Public Citizen

Community Nutrition Institute

United Poultry Concerns

Society for Animal Protective Legislation

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Dr. Samuel Epstein, Professor Emeritus, Environmental and Occupational Medicine,
University of Illinois at Chicago and Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition

Organic Consumers Association

Government Accountability Project