Feces, Vomit On Raw Meat
A Growing Risk
By Julie Vorman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans face a growing risk of eating feces, vomit and metal shards in meat and poultry because the US Agriculture Department is allowing companies to perform more of their own food safety inspections, two consumer groups and a labor union said on Tuesday.
Their survey of 451 federal inspectors showed many were concerned that too much contaminated meat and poultry was slipping through company production lines under the government's new food safety procedures. The 451 respondents represent about six percent of all federal meat inspectors.
Public Citizen, the Government Accountability Project and the American Federation of Government Employees said the USDA's decision to give plants more responsibility for safety will unravel public health gains made since author Upton Sinclair documented grisly slaughterhouse conditions in "The Jungle."
The USDA contends that its data shows the new meat inspection procedures give consumers more protection against microscopic diseases such as E. coli 0157:H7 and salmonella. The activist groups disagree.
"Our survey warns consumers that on a good day, their meat and poultry are inspected under an industry honor system," Felicia Nestor, food safety director for the Government Accountability Project, told reporters at a news conference.
"Federal inspectors check paperwork, not food, and are prohibited from removing feces and other contaminants before products are stamped with the purple USDA seal of approval," she added.
Some 206 meat inspectors who responded to the survey said there were weekly or monthly instances when they did not take direct action against animal feces, vomit, metal shards or other contamination because of the new USDA rules.
At issue is the USDA's broad policy shift in 1996 to require the owners of slaughter plants to adopt a series of food safety checkpoints and to perform scientific tests for microscopic bacteria to confirm that meat and poultry is safe.
That approach has meant the redeployment of USDA inspectors in an experiment at some three dozen slaughter plants. Instead of physically examining carcasses on the production line - a technique known as "poke and sniff" -- they now scrutinize company paperwork and test results.
"It sounds to us, as a union, like this is designed to eliminate inspection and they are reducing numbers gradually," said Arthur Hughes, president of the Northeast Council of Food Inspection Locals.
The government's pilot program was successfully challenged in court by the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many of the 7,500 meat inspectors. A federal appeals court ruled in June that the nearly century-old law requires the physical inspection of cattle, pig, chicken and other meat carcasses by USDA employees.
The court ruling came after the USDA's own office of inspector general, an independent investigative arm of the department, issued a 400-page report that urged tighter rules for all meat and poultry plants to protect consumers.
Last week, the USDA offered to station an inspector on the production line at pilot plants specifically to watch for contamination problems. The inspectors union said that was not enough to fix the problems with safety procedures.
USDA officials criticized the survey as flawed and reflecting the desire of a small number of inspectors to block more scientific food safety techniques."Our meat and poultry products are safer than they have ever been," Tom Billy, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said in an interview.
"If that (survey results) were true, why are companies challenging us in court on our salmonella performance standards," Billy added. He was referring to a bitter court battle between the USDA and Texas-based Supreme Beef Inc. over federal requirements that a beef processing plant meet salmonella test standards.
Under the 1996 food safety changes, federal inspectors who spot contaminated meat or poultry cannot immediately pull the product but must follow it through to the end of the production line to see if plant safety checkpoints catch it. If the checkpoints do not halt the tainted product, USDA inspectors must step in and seize it, he said.
In an instance like that, a plant would be written up for having inadequate safety procedures, Billy said.
"An inspector who allows any adulterated product to the leave the plant is failing to do his or her job," Billy said.
Physical inspection of every carcass is difficult with production lines typically moving 85 to 140 birds per minute through a poultry plant.
Meat and poultry companies insist it is in their own best interests to avoid food safety shortcuts.
By some estimates, the 1993 outbreak of deadly E. coli 0157:H7 in hamburgers sold by a Jack in the Box restaurant cost the company close to $1 billion in lawsuits, hospital costs and lost sales.
Dane Bernard, a vice president of the National Food Processors Association, said the new survey was based on a small sample of inspectors but that USDA should examine the results to identify possible ways of improving its policies.
"We're in the early stages of building a new food safety inspection system," Bernard said. "We see the concern over union jobs being behind a lot of this battle."

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