New Federal Meat Inspection System Fails to Earn Inspectors’ Seal of Approval

Sept. 5, 2000

New Federal Meat Inspection System Fails to Earn Inspectors’
Seal of Approval

THE JUNGLE 2000 Released Today

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new study suggests the federal meat inspection program instituted by the Clinton administration in 1996 has led to a troubling decrease in food safety as the meat industry has taken on a larger role in making sure meat is free of fecal matter and other contamination.

The report, called The Jungle 2000, was released at a news conference today by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and Public Citizen. It reports the findings of a survey of federal meat inspectors regarding their first-hand experiences with the Clinton administration’s new inspection system.

The survey results raise serious questions about the safety of meat under the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) program.

“Our survey warns consumers that on a good day, their meat and poultry are inspected under an industry honor system – 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,” said Felicia Nestor, food safety project director with GAP. “It is not infrequent that industry workers secretly ask the inspectors for help because they’re pressured to put profits ahead of public health. On a bad day, extensive shortages (of inspectors) mean that inspectors are not in the plants at all.”

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. HACCP gives the meat industry primary responsibility for ensuring safety and restricts the authority of federal inspectors.

In July 1999, a 14-page survey with 114 questions, designed by GAP, was sent to about 2,340 HAACP inspectors, and 451 responded. The respondents had spent an average of 18.5 years as federal meat and poultry inspectors.

The report’s findings mirror those contained in a recent report by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General, which was critical of the implementation of the HACCP program.

On one question, 210 inspectors (out of 327 responding) indicated that since HACCP began at their plant, there have been instances when they have not taken direct action against contamination (feces, vomit, metal shards, etc.) that they observed and would have taken action under the old system. Of those, 206 said this occurs daily or weekly.

“This program was sold to the union as a consumer protection enhancement,” said Arthur Hughes, president of the Northeast Council of Food Inspection Locals. “Instead, it ended up deregulating food inspection by shifting the responsibility of meat and poultry inspection to the industry. USDA calls it the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system, while the inspectors call it the “Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray.”

“The USDA says it has zero tolerance for fecal matter, but the survey clearly shows that such contamination is occurring,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “Slaughter and meat-processing lines are moving faster than ever, with as many as 400 cows an hour and over 200 birds per minute being killed. At the same time, inspectors’ authority to remove feces and other contamination has been curtailed. It’s The Jungle all over again.”

Public Citizen and GAP were joined by representatives of groups with grave concerns about this program. The groups included the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, American Federation of Government Employees, the Cattlemen’s Legal Defense Fund and others.