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Inspector General Report Confirms That Meat Inspection Program is Ineffective

Oct. 3, 2003

Inspector General Report Confirms That Meat Inspection Program is Ineffective

Statement of Patty Lovera, Deputy Director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program

The release of a government report on last summer’s massive ConAgra ground beef recall, while long overdue, offers a welcome examination of the fundamental flaws in the federal meat safety system. The report, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG), confirms that the government’s meat inspection program, called the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program, is ineffective and does not protect consumers.

ConAgra’s massive recall of nearly 19 million pounds of beef in July 2002 was a dramatic illustration of how the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) kowtows to the meat industry. The OIG found that agency management ignored their own inspectors who identified problems in the plant long before the recall occurred. Now that the recall has finally been investigated, FSIS is scrambling to protect itself by trying to blame the very inspectors it ignored. FSIS issued a press release trying to put a positive spin on the scathing audit even before the OIG released the report to the public.

The bottom line for consumers is that a recall always comes too late. Once an unsafe product is on the grocery store shelves, the meat industry and the USDA have already failed consumers. Meat should not leave the processing plant if it is contaminated with E. coli and other bacteria.

The Inspector General identified many remedies for FSIS management and policies. Unfortunately, FSIS wants to act as if this massive recall was an isolated incident and only make minor adjustments. The report made 31 recommendations on how to improve the current inspection process. They included: 1) FSIS should require access to company microbial testing results and act on the results of such testing; 2) FSIS should establish specific criteria for taking enforcement action when a plant repeatedly violates regulations; and 3) FSIS should take control meat contaminated with E. coli and verify that it has been properly processed or destroyed. FSIS failed to address adequately 20 of the recommendations in its response to the OIG.

Congress must revamp the faulty meat inspection system and once again empower inspectors to protect the public. Congress should not accept the USDA’s claims that it doesn’t need any more authority over the meat industry. The ConAgra case – and the USDA’s role in it – proves that letting the industry police itself doesn’t work.

To read the OIG report on ConAgra, click here.