Jan. 18, 2001

Court Ruling on New Meat Inspection Program Is Huge Setback
for Meat Safety

Court Rules That Token Government Inspector Legitimizes Meat and Poultry Industry Self-Inspection Program

WASHINGTON, D.C. Setting back meat inspection by nearly a century, a federal judge has ruled that slaughterhouses can inspect their own meat products, which likely will result in consumers eating dirtier meat, Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project said today.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday found that the United States Department of Agriculture s (USDA) newly revised pilot meat inspection program complies with applicable laws. The self-inspection program, which originally used only company "inspectors" to examine carcasses, was recently revised to require a token government inspector at the end of the slaughter line to observe tens of thousands of carcasses rapidly moving by each day. However, the inspector may not look inside carcasses, where much contamination resides.

"Americans would be horrified to know that their family must depend on only one government meat inspector who must view thousands of carcasses whizzing by," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. "The court's decision makes a mockery of the government 's meat inspection program."

Under the prior inspection system, in place since 1906, beef, pork and poultry was inspected continuously during slaughter and processing by government inspectors who relied on sight, touch and smell to check for animal disease or fecal matter. There were two to four inspectors per plant, and slaughter lines were much slower. The USDA s new USDA's Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) Inspection Model Pilot (HIMP) gives the meat industry primary responsibility for ensuring safety and restricts the authority of federal inspectors.

In 1996, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) argued in federal court that the USDA exceeded its authority by introducing HIMP. The district court ruled against AFGE, so the union appealed the decision.

Last year, an appellate court ruled that HIMP was illegal because it used company employees to inspect meat, while the government inspectors merely oversaw company processes. The appellate court sent the case back to the district court for an order consistent with its ruling. After the USDA added the government inspector to its program, the District Court found that placing a single inspector at the end of each slaughter line satisfied the statutory mandate that government inspectors examine every carcass.

"Under the court-accepted modification, inspectors are completely blocked from even glimpsing most fecal contamination on poultry carcasses because inspectors are limited to observing only the back of the birds as they move through the slaughter lines." said Felicia Nestor, director of the Government Accountability Project's Food Safety Program. "Our preliminary analysis shows that fecal contamination, which is a primary source of deadly pathogens, occurs most often inside the bird. Therefore, contamination is invisible to the inspectors, making it impossible for them to determine whether carcasses are adulterated."