USDA Tells Inspectors to Give Deference to Meat Companies, Stop Production Lines Only in Certain Circumstances

PUBLIC CITIZEN * GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY PROJECT * COMMUNITY NUTRITION INSTITUTE

Oct. 31, 2002

USDA Tells Inspectors to Give Deference to Meat Companies, Stop Production Lines Only in Certain Circumstances

Leaked Memo Shows Constraints on Authority of Meat Inspectors, Helps Explain Why USDA Pushes Irradiation

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Advocacy groups Government Accountability Project (GAP), the Community Nutrition Institute and Public Citizen sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman today asking her to explain why her agency is tying the hands of government meat inspectors when it comes to preventing fecal contamination of meat, while at the same time promoting the controversial technology of food irradiation to deal with the E. coli that comes from such contamination. Field instructions to meat inspectors, obtained recently by GAP, outline the constraints on inspectors’ authority in the plants.

The USDA has evidently backed away from its “zero tolerance” stance on fecal contamination, as can be seen in the written instructions for USDA meat inspectors working in Kansas, where 20 percent of red meat in the U.S. is produced. The field instructions set a high hurdle before inspectors can require a plant to take specific corrective action.

The instructions repeatedly state that stopping the production line is to be avoided at all costs and that the inspectors themselves will be held responsible for lost production if the company challenges their action.

“These directions shed some light on the thinking at USDA headquarters: Officials would rather promote irradiation and have consumers eating sterilized filth than stand up to meat companies and stop the line when there is a problem,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.

The memo warns that:

“stopping production for ‘possible’ cross contamination…is unjustifiable unless you can verify that there is direct product contamination. Verification is OBSERVATION of gross contaminate not SUSPECTED contaminate. This is the only criteria for justifying halting production.”

This low standard extends even to fecal matter, which is the source of deadly pathogens such as E. coli 0157:h7. While the memo mentions the official “zero tolerance” policy on fecal contamination, the document narrowly defines such contamination, constraining when inspectors can act.

“We will allow the company a chance to trim [feces, stomach contents, or milk] off on the moving lines unless it is so excessive, that it must be corrected with the line stopped. You are responsible for the time the line is off,” the memo dictates. “Remember, YOU are accountable for this very serious responsibility of stopping the company’s production for the benefit of food safety… verifiable ingesta or feces is as follows: a material of yellow, green, brown or dark color that has a fibrous nature,” the memo states.

But this directive can lead to dangerous consequences if followed. According to Paul Johnson, acting chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, “By not taking immediate action when you suspect there is a problem, you increase the odds that one contaminated piece of meat can contaminate machinery, employees and other products. Further, inspectors know that a small smear of feces can have deadly consequences just as easily as an amount large enough to have ‘a fibrous nature’ – yet the USDA prohibits us from taking action that could protect consumers.”

Added Felicia Nestor, food safety project director of GAP, “The USDA is abandoning the zero tolerance standard for any fecal contamination on beef and replacing it with a new standard – wholesome unless there is ‘gross’ contamination. It’s impossible for this standard to coexist with the agency’s claim that it makes decisions based on science. ‘Gross’ is an inherently subjective standard.”

Earlier this week, a controversy erupted over the USDA’s possible plans to include irradiated meat in the food it purchases for the National School Lunch Program. According to Hauter, “No long-term studies of the effect of eating irradiated food have been done. The USDA would rather feed irradiated food to schoolchildren than let their inspectors have the authority to make sure the meat is wholesome.”

Irradiation uses gamma rays, X-rays or accelerated electrons that alter the molecular structure of food in an attempt to kill pathogens and insects. The process destroys nutrients, may change the taste, smell and appearance of food, and produces new chemical compounds, some of which have been found to promote cancer and cause genetic and cellular damage in rats and human cells. Irradiation is a distinctly different process from pasteurization, which uses rapid heating and cooling to partially sterilize liquid products, namely milk.

The groups called on Veneman to:

  • Withdraw any directive to inspectors and other inspection personnel to allow fecal contamination;
  • Issue instructions to all field staff directing that the zero tolerance rule for fecal contamination must be applied under any and all circumstances; and
  • Maintain the current prohibition on irradiation for commodities purchased for all of the nutrition programs which USDA administers because, with a proper regulatory scheme, there will be minimal need for interventions.

“We believe these are the minimum management actions the secretary must take to the halt the erosion of public confidence in the safety of the nation’s food supply,” said Rod Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute and former administrator for USDA’s Consumer and Marketing Service that included meat and poultry inspection.

To read the USDA memo, click here.

To read the letter to Veneman, click here.

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