Federal Inspectors Say Slaughterhouses Are Selling Contaminated Meat

USDA inspection procedures said to erode food safety gains
By Julie Vorman

WASHINGTON, Sep 07 (Reuters) - Americans face a greater risk of
contaminated meat because the US Agriculture Department is allowing
companies to perform more of their own food safety inspections, two
consumer groups and a labour union said on Tuesday.

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."

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 6% of all federal meat inspectors.

The USDA contends that its data show the new meat inspection procedures
give consumers more protection against 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 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 using a "poke and
sniff" technique, they now scrutinize company paperwork and test

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.

Under the 1996 food safety changes, federal inspectors who spot
contaminated meat or poultry 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. "An inspector who allows any adulterated
product to the leave the plant is failing to do his or her job," Billy

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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