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USDA Confuses Facts with Myths

July 21, 2000

USDA Confuses Facts with Myths

Government Misleads Public about Pilot Meat Inspection Program, Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project Charge

WASHINGTON, D.C. In attempting to “clarify” statements contained in news articles about a pilot meat inspection program, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is only further misleading the public, Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project said today.

Under the pilot program, the meat industry polices itself, rather than relying on federal inspectors. Federal meat inspectors do not check every carcass. Rather, the meat industry hires its own inspectors to check meat, while the federal inspectors watch the company inspectors from afar. The program is being tested in about 30 facilities nationwide. News reports, however, have shown that the program is not in the best interests of consumers because it allows contaminated meat into supermarkets.

At a news conference on Wednesday, the USDA s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) released a document entitled “MYTHS AND FACTS, Inaccuracies in News Articles Concerning HACCP-Based Inspection Models (HIMP).” Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project charge that the agency transposed its myths and facts.

“Instead of coming clean regarding the deficiencies in the HIMP program and the agency s continued attempts to weaken the wholesome standards in meat and poultry inspection, they continue to deceive the public,” said Felicia Nestor, Food Safety Project Director of the Government Accountability Project. “HIMP is a program to turn the inspection of meat and poultry over to the industry for self-inspection. The public has to be informed of the truth about the dismantling of our food inspection system.”

Added Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, “This pilot program is bad for consumers. Self-policing by the food processing industry has not worked in the past, and it will not in the future. It s bad enough when the wolf is allowed to guard the chicken coop, but it is absolutely unconscionable when the government gives the wolf the key to the lock on the chicken coop door.”

In response to the “Myths and Facts” sheet, Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project are answering each point made by the agency:

Myth # 1: According to the agency’s own documents, the FSIS is, in fact, permitting meat and poultry that is contaminated by certain animal diseases and defects to enter the food supply. In 1998, FSIS circulated a paper listing those diseases and defects that would be reclassified because they do not present an immediate public health threat; in 1999 it implemented those standards in the pilot plants and has started the process to codify the lower wholesomeness standards and new “inspection” techniques.

Myths # 2 and 3: The second and third myths are actually facts. Under the current inspection process, every carcass has to be inspected. Under the pilot program, only a sample of the carcasses is inspected. Also, federal food inspectors are relegated to being auditors and inspectors of the industry inspectors. In a recent court ruling, a federal appeals court agreed that HIMP was an inspection system of dubious quality. The court stated: “In other words, the government believes that federal employees fulfill their statutory duties to inspect by watching others perform the task. One might as well say that umpires are pitchers because they carefully watch others throw baseballs.”

Myth # 4: Under the industry self-inspection program, federal meat inspectors inspect fewer than .01 percent of carcasses?- all other product is judged using sampling. The sampling standards for what can be released to consumers have large tolerances for diseases and defects, and inspectors are instructed only to keep records of the levels of disease and defective meat that enters the marketplace.

Myth # 5: The inspector is rarely at the end of the processing line. Currently, in poultry slaughtering facilities, each inspector checks approximately 30 birds per minute, which has been considered to be a high rate of speed. In some of the plants that have the pilot project, the rate has increased six-fold, to 170 chickens per minute. It is not humanly possible for proper inspection at these high rates of processing.