USDA wants to expand new meat inspection system despite questions about results

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government wants more meat processors to change the way their products are inspected, although congressional investigators say there's no proof the new system is as safe as the traditional program.

Under the new system, federal inspectors no longer do hand checks of carcasses, leaving that job to company employees. The inspectors are supposed to spend more time monitoring plant sanitation equipment, overseeing plant workers and sampling products for contamination.

The Agriculture Department, which says the changes will result in safer meat, has decided not to make the system mandatory but plans to expand it to new facilities on a voluntary basis.

"This is an improved system, but it depends on a lot of things, including plant commitment," Margaret Glavin, acting administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said USDA's decision to continue the program "makes no sense" and "is a recipe for a food safety disaster."


A report by the General Accounting Office cited test results that indicate some plants participating in a pilot project had more problems with some types of contamination.

Five of 11 chicken processing plants had higher rates of salmonella contamination than previously, and two processors showed improvement. Tests also found higher rates of defects, such as bruises, on chickens processed by many of the 11 plants, said GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

"The only reason for the administration to go forward after the GAO report is to give in to the poultry industry's pressure to run their production lines faster. Faster line speeds results in more fecal material on poultry," said Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America. Foreman oversaw USDA's food safety programs during the Carter administration.

Data collected by an independent testing firm showed that fecal material, which can carry dangerous bacteria, continued to show up on chicken in 10 of the 11 plants using the new inspection system, GAO said.

As many as seven of the 11 plants had higher rates of some quality defects, problems such as bruises and stray feathers, that posed no health hazard, the report said.

Data gathered by USDA found somewhat better results. Even so, the testing that has been done so far doesn't prove that the "modified inspections are at least equal to traditional inspections," which was USDA's criteria for going forward with the program, GAO said.

The department started the project in 1999 and is now operating the new inspection system in 25 plants that slaughter chickens, turkeys and hogs.

The inspectors union has been fighting the project in court, contending the traditional system is better. Nevertheless, GAO found broad support for the experimental system among rank-and-file inspectors.


Seventy-one percent of USDA inspectors and veterinarians surveyed by GAO said products were as safe or safer under the new system. Some inspectors said they have more time to oversee the slaughter lines and collect carcass samples than they did before, the report said.

USDA officials said they decided to keep the program voluntary partly out of fear standards might slip in plants that weren't willing to put the time and money into making improvements.

Harkin requested the GAO study along with the panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana.


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