Questions About New U.S.
Meat Inspection Program
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government's new system for preventing contamination in processing plants is known by the acronym HACCP. Some meat and poultry inspectors sardonically say that means: "Have A Cup of Coffee and Pray."
Actually, it means "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points," a system beginning Monday for the 312 largest meat and poultry processing plants that account for 75 percent of livestock slaughtered in the United States. It will be phased in over two years in the remaining 6,100 plants.
"We definitely have our work cut out for us, as there are many disturbing pitfalls and apparent weaknesses," Randy Wurtele, western president of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, said in a letter on the union council's Internet site.
Focus On Problem Prevention
Under the new regime, plants install their own facilities' preventive measures to reduce E. coli and salmonella bacteria and improve sanitation. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the system is a "revolutionary improvement" over the old approach's reliance on sight, touch and smell.
"Rather than catching problems after they occur, we will now focus on preventing problems in the first place," Glickman said.
HACCP systems involve identifying points in a processing plant where contamination is most likely to occur and finding methods to combat it. Each plant can design its own HACCP system but must meet certain standards.
Some of the 7,500 federal inspectors on the front lines say relying on company workers to keep records on how well the systems operate places too much faith in the honesty of corporations out to make a profit.
For example, companies are required to test for E. coli, a strain of which can cause serious illness or even death in humans. But no federal inspector will oversee the tests, and companies need only make available their own results, which Wurtele said could be fabricated.
Thomas J. Billy, head of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said federal inspectors will do random E. coli sampling and compare results. The government could order corrective action, Billy said, "if we see an aberration."
'A public relations ploy'
Inspectors have voiced other worries, including a bacteria-sampling plan exempting certain kinds of animals and the lack of a requirement that the industry document qualifications of workers who make changes in HACCP systems.
The rules are "a public relations ploy" aimed mainly at shifting blame for outbreaks of food-borne illness from the government to private industry, Wurtele said.
"We cannot sit still when we see obvious shortcomings," he said.
Glickman insisted the new rules go further to control food-borne pathogens, and inspectors will have greater ability to close plants that show patterns of noncompliance with HACCP systems.
In addition, he said, plant inspectors will continue visual inspections of carcasses and have more freedom to check out overall operations than before.
Glickman said he also will push Congress to allow the department to impose fines on violators and issue mandatory recalls of bad product. An administration bill to do that has been stuck in committee since last fall.
"We really have no regulatory tools except for a shutdown," Glickman said. "We can fine circuses for mistreating elephants ..., but we can't fine companies that violate food-safety standards."

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