July 16, 2002
GAO Report Confirms Criticisms of Meat Inspection System
WASHINGTON, D.C. ? A new draft General Accounting Office (GAO) report on the U.S. Department of Agriculture?s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) meat and poultry inspection system, a copy of which has been obtained by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and Public Citizen, provides dramatic confirmation of the Washington-based public interest groups? ongoing warnings about the program. The GAO report underlines many of the problems GAP and Public Citizen have previously identified in the reports, The Jungle 2000 and Hamburger Hell: The Flip Side of USDA?s Salmonella Testing Program.
The draft report by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, confirms that the HACCP program is riddled with design, management and implementation problems and is putting the public?s health at risk. Many of the problems described in the report were first identified by the USDA?s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) in the summer of 2000.
The USDA?s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) promotes the HACCP program as “science-based,” but this latest report demonstrates that there is little scientific basis to the program. The report details serious flaws in meat company “HACCP plans” written by meat companies to anticipate and prevent food safety hazards. The GAO estimates that it would take years before the FSIS could complete even an initial review of all company plans, yet under HACCP, the vast majority of the USDA?s inspection activities in meat plants are based on these plans.
This reliance on HACCP means that in plants with inadequate plans, government inspectors are dispatched on useless inspection activities, while the plants keep shipping potentially dangerous products to market. To make matters worse, the FSIS has made clear that it will not review the scientific validity of company plans unless the plant repeatedly violates food safety laws or there is other evidence of hazard, such as a recall of dangerous products.
“Since the inception of this program in 1997, inspectors have repeatedly asked FSIS management for training, especially on how to determine the adequacy of company HACCP plans,” said Paul Johnson, acting chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals. “The agency has told us that evaluating company HACCP plans is not the government?s role.”
Added Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, “The Food Safety and Inspection Service?s failure to approve, or even examine, company HACCP plans is a critical gap in oversight. This report confirms that FSIS management has not given the inspectors clear instructions or the training they need to do their job in the plants, and consumers are the ones that suffer.”
The GAO report also documents systemic confusion about basic enforcement issues. Since 1997, meat inspectors have repeatedly asked FSIS for clarification of the most basic enforcement concepts ? such as “What constitutes a repetitive violation?” ? but the agency has yet to provide any clear guidance for inspectors or supervisors. This confusion was cited in 2000 by both the OIG, and GAP and Public Citizen in The Jungle 2000. The GAO found that as recently as this year, FSIS supervisors still have widely divergent interpretations about this specific issue. In the meantime, plants with poor enforcement records continue to produce as inspectors on the front line are forced to grapple with these unknowns.
The GAO report also confirms GAP and Public Citizen?s most recent findings about HACCP?s microbial testing program, released this spring in a report called Hamburger Hell. The groups found that ground beef plants that have repeatedly failed the government?s routine testing program for salmonella continue to operate for months before the agency demands corrective action. This means that tons of potentially contaminated meat are reaching the market ? with a USDA stamp of approval. The FSIS has recently presented new draft directives and policies to address this and other problems with the testing program, but these are even less specific and more noncommittal than the instructions they replace.
Since the beginning of the HACCP inspection program, GAP and Public Citizen have worked with USDA whistleblowers, individually and collectively, to alert the public to the same problems identified in this GAO report. Ironically, the agency has consistently accused these public servants, who risked their jobs by coming forward, of trying only to protect their jobs.
“Without congressional hearings and a strong demand for FSIS accountability, the GAO report will likely find itself on the scrap heap. In the past, the FSIS has ignored the most compelling evidence of problems, whether identified by its own inspectors in the field or outside reviewers. On each occasion it has responded with little more than a reiteration of its previous empty rhetoric and misleading statistics,” said Felicia Nestor, food safety program director for GAP. “When thousands of Americans still die each year from contaminated meat and poultry and in an era when national food safety security is more important than ever, the American public deserves strong action from Congress and real reform of this food inspection system. To date, it appears that taxpayer dollars are doing little more than paying for an inventive but inaccurate public relations blitz by FSIS headquarters. It is time for real reform.”