- 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.
- FREQUENT CONTAMINATION SPOTTED
- 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
- 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 SAYS SURVEY NOT CREDIBLE
- 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
- 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
- "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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