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Industry-Led Meat Inspection Program Sends Dirty Meat to Market

Jan. 22, 2002

Industry-Led Meat Inspection Program Sends Dirty Meat to Market

Most Americans Support Government Inspection of Meat

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? Taking government inspectors off slaughter lines allows more unsafe meat to slip into the market, a recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) report concludes, verifying what Public Citizen and others have been saying for years.

The December GAO report found that a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) pilot program that reduces the agency?s role in meat inspection is not an improvement over the traditional inspection system. The Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) Inspection Model Pilot (HIMP),

which gives the meat industry primary responsibility for ensuring safety and restricts the authority of federal inspectors, is plagued with design and methodology problems, the GAO said. On standards ranging from contamination with fecal matter to feathers and glands left on carcasses, several of the chicken plants in this pilot project did not perform as well as they did under traditional inspection.

“While this report confirms what Public Citizen, the meat inspectors union and other consumer groups have been saying for years about privatized meat inspection, it doesn?t go far enough in addressing the real cause of many food safety problems,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “We not only need government inspectors who have the authority to act to protect consumers, but we also need to address the issue of line speed in these plants. No one can produce clean meat when lines are running at more than 100 birds per minute.”

The self-inspection program, which was implemented in 1997 in a handful of plants that volunteered for the project, originally used only company “inspectors” to examine carcasses. The program was revised in 2000 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. The HIMP program also relies on chemical washes, sprays and other “interventions” to treat contamination that is still on the carcass.

Under the prior inspection system, beef, pork and poultry were 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.

“These plants look like drive-through car washes: The car enters with fecal material inside and out, and it leaves all pretty and shiny on the outside. But what about the inside? In a HIMP plant, no one is looking at the inside,” said Delmer Jones, president of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, the union for federal meat inspectors. “Instead of addressing that problem, the USDA would rather spend millions of taxpayer dollars telling consumers how great the outside of the car looks.”

Added Hauter, “This program is just another attempt to deregulate a powerful industry, and just as with electricity deregulation, it?s the consumer who loses. Most consumers would be appalled to find out that the USDA has even considered reducing the meat inspection system to an industry honor system.”

In fact, in a national poll conducted this month by Lake Snell Perry and Associates, 1,000 registered voters were asked whether inspection of meat plants should be done by the meat industry or the government. Eighty percent favored government inspection.

“The public doesn?t support self-inspection by the meat companies,” Hauter said. “The GAO has found that the USDA?s attempt to move toward self-inspection isn?t working. It?s time for this pilot program to end, not be expanded, as the USDA plans.”

To ensure better meat safety, the USDA must reduce line speeds and improve other parts of the inspection program, Hauter said. Among the principles that should govern meat inspection:

  • Self-inspection by the meat industry is inappropriate. The federal government is the appropriate institution to inspect government-approved meat;
  • The USDA should reinstate consumer protections that were discontinued, including continuous physical inspection of carcasses, pre-operational inspection of sanitation, and authority for meat inspectors to require the removal of contamination at all points during slaughter and meat processing;
  • Congress and the USDA should require state-of-the-art whistleblower legal protection for any employee defending food safety;
  • Government inspectors should be armed with the most advanced consumer protection technologies, including real-time, rapid tests for contamination, which can be used to prevent meat with deadly pathogens from ever leaving the plant;
  • Interventions that mask contamination, such as tri-sodium phosphate washes and irradiation, should not be used to replace sanitation at any stage of production. The use of any of these interventions should be, at the very least, clearly labeled on all meat products, both in stores and on restaurant menus.

Please click here to view the GAO report.