The United States Department of Agriculture says it wants to create a new, science-based food safety system. But unless federal officials give their new meat inspection policies a second look, they may create a vegetarian nation, instead.
With 7,000 inspectors responsible for examining 88 billion pounds of meat and poultry every year, there can be no question that the USDA's existing system is seriously strained. But the answer surely isn't relaxing standards or turning over inspections to the very companies being inspected.
The most recent, and revolting, development was a report last week that meat from diseased animal carcasses would, under the new rules, be classified as safe. Meat from animals with cancer, open sores and diseases caused by intestinal parasites pose no health threat to humans, according to the new guidelines. Perhaps not, but it could prove fatal to the economic health of the nation's meatpackers. Worse, federal inspectors say meat moves so quickly on packing lines -- 91 birds a minute moving past three inspectors at one plant -- that bad poultry can easily slip through.
The agriculture department is also proposing to do away with the existing system under which every animal carcass is examined by a federal inspector. Instead, company employees would do the inspecting, and the federal inspectors would monitor company workers. That plan was dealt a serious setback this month when a federal appeals court ruled it violates the law. Believing otherwise, the appeals court judges wrote, is akin to believing "that umpires are pitchers because they carefully watch others throw baseballs."
The case grew out of a dispute with the union representing meat inspectors. Court testimony in that case included a report describing instructions given to inspectors at a plant where the new rules are being tested. Even if they saw bad meat going down a processing line, inspectors were told not to remove it. "They are supposed to let the system work, and the consumer will take care of the bad product," the report stated.
But consumers often don't know how to spot bad meat or poultry. That's why the USDA inspection program was established in the first place. Even when the government discovered violations, Cox newspapers discovered, it didn't act. A newspaper investigation found some meatpacking plants were allowed to continue operating even after being cited more than 1,000 times for safety violations.
In a report last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided the latest estimates of foodborne illness in our country. Eating bad food results in 76 million cases of gastrointestinal illness, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, the report concluded.
And that was before the USDA "improved" its inspection program. USDA officials may have good intentions. But good intentions won't keep the food supply safe.
© 2000 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Clinton Administration Reduces Standards For Wholesome Meats
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 17, 2000