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Government "Washes its Hands" of Meat and Poultry Safety Inspections

By       Message Martha Rosenberg     Permalink
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Remember in the mid-1990s when USDA began telling people to wash their cutting boards and utensils after preparing meat and always use a meat thermometer? Because US meat and poultry is so full of pathogens, if you don't kill them they might kill you? That was the beginning of the government's move to pass food safety risks on to customers, and, more distressingly, to meat processors themselves. The move is continuing with new, alarming government efforts to reduce and disempower meat inspectors at slaughter plants and allow private industry to regulate itself.

How safe is your next meal? by Martha Rosenberg

In 1998, USDA rolled out its pilot HACCP system. The acronym stood for "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points" but federal meat inspectors, industry watchers and food advocates quickly dubbed it "Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray" because it transferred oversight from the government to the plant, in shocking, industry-friendly de-regulation.   HACCP was supposed to replace meat inspectors' old-fashioned "poke and sniff" method of visually examining carcasses by instituting advanced microbiology techniques. But it is also an "honors system" in which federal inspectors simply ratify that companies arefollowing their own self-created system . As in "Trust us."

Last week,   a coalition of food and worker safety advocates and allies gathered outside the White House to protest USDA's imminent plan to implement HACCP system-wide now that it has been used at pilot locations. "Instead of trained USDA inspectors, companies will police themselves," says the site of the group that organized the protest, "Plants will be allowed to speed up production dramatically. Chickens will spend more time soaking in contaminants (including pus and feces!), and poultry plants are compensating by washing them in with chlorine."

The expansion of the HACCP pilot programs, called HIMP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Models Project) would cut the number of poultry inspectors while increasing the use of antimicrobial sprays to control bacteria, charges Daily Finance. (Some call it "Spray and Pray.") It would reposition inspectors at the end of the assembly line so they could not stop the hanging of unacceptable birds, only view them as they go by. It would allow only one side of the bird to be visualized, say inspectors in sworn affidavits on a Government Accountability Project whistleblower web site, a critical omission, because fecal contamination often does not show on the outside of a carcass. Birds once considered unacceptable can now end up remaining on the line, only to be dipped in disinfectants like chlorine to reduce disease risk, say food advocates.

Fecal contamination is not the only risk posed by the new, laissez-faire system. Under the new HACCP/HIMP rules, bruises, scabs, sores, blisters, infections and tumors on chickens will no longer be considered "Other Consumer Protections" (OCPs) and removed. Already, when half a bird's body is "covered with an inflammatory process" it may still be "salvaged" for food, says an anonymous poultry inspector who is against the new system.

It is hard to believe federal meat inspection will be further relaxed when it is already widely believed to be a farce. The major chains Red Robin, Applebee's and Outback Steakhouse have been cited for food poisonin g outbreaks. The salmonella-laden Wright County Egg and the Peanut Corp. of America, both of which caused disease outbreaks, were awarded "superior" food ratings by inspectors only months before their products were recalled . And the Westland/Hallmark Meat company, which contaminated the School Lunch program and caused the biggest meat recall in US history, passed 17 separate audits the same year its products were recalled! Let's loosen the rules?

Of course, the cutbacks are all about money. Under the new plans, the government spends less because its inspectors' duties are assumed by the plant workers. The plants, of course, lose less money because their operations will never be shut down by those pesky inspectors. (USDA stresses the new HIMP plans are voluntary as if a plant would say, "We refuse to forfeit out federal inspectors!")

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USDA insists the moves amount to "modernizing" and improving meat safety, not privatizing and deregulating it.   And, if more "more fecal material is being found on the meat in the processing plants using the experimental procedures," says Phil Derfler, deputy administrator for US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), it is only because the government is testing more thoroughly.

Needless to say, meat producers are beaming at the trend. "Five U.S. pork plants have participated in a pilot program in which plant employees sort and prepare carcasses for inspection by federal inspectors, who identify food safety defects," wrote J. Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive of the American Meat Institute, in a letter to the Washington Post last month. "The pilot program for pork is similar to one for poultry; that program was praised last week by the National Association of Federal Veterinarians for its ability to achieve a better food safety outcome. If we allow this pilot program to continue and be evaluated by the Agriculture Department, it is likely the data will provide further evidence of its effectiveness." The letter's headline was, "A meat inspection system that is working."

But a quick look at one pork plant already utilizing HACCP is not reassuring. Indiana Packers Corporation, a pork producer in North Delphi, Indiana, promises customers it has "everything you need to ensure you serve the very best--superior freshness, optimum food safety and HACCP protocols," on its web site. Yet, in 2008 it was one of several US plants where workers developed a nerve destroying condition called demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy or progressive inflammatory neuropathy from inhaling aerosolized pork brains, which the plant produced for foreign markets.

Why did workers fall ill in 2008 when the aerosolized brain product was not new at the plant? "The line speed, the line speed," a doctor treating t he workers told the Associated Press. The line speed made it hard for employees to keep up, reported Mother Jones, causing pig heads to pile up and "allowing more mist to drift over the head table," which employees then inhaled. Yum.

HACCP and HIMP are part of an ongoing war between federal inspectors and meat processors over line speed. To issue an NR (Noncompliance Reports) inspectors usually have to slow or stop the line--which of course infuriates plant owners since time is money. Inspectors report derision and insubordination from plant personnel, clear risks to the consumer from the sped up assembly lines and a lack of support from the FSIS district office. Soon after HACCP pilot programs were implemented, a study by the Government Accountability Project and Public Citizen found that 62 percent of inspectors surveyed had been forced to allow contamination like feces, vomit and metal shards in food on a daily or weekly basis. Almost 20 percent said they'd been instructed not to document violations. Eighty percent of 451 inspectors surveyed said that HACCP attenuated their ability to enforce the law and the public's right to know about food safety. Inspectors are charged enforcing the Federal Meat Inspection Act, Poultry Products Inspection Act and Egg Products Inspection Acts, Humane Methods of Slaughter.

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"It's tough enough when you are trying to examine 140 birds per minute with professional inspectors," said Alabama federal inspector Stan Painter. "This proposal [HIMP] makes it impossible." The new poultry plant rules would give inspectors one third of a second to examine a chicken. "It's a business strategy, not a public-health strategy," said David Acheson, former assistant commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration of the self-regulation movement in meat processing.

The tensions between federal inspectors and private meat processors actually led to murder not too long ago. In 2000, a sausage factory owner become so enraged over federal inspectors he felt were harassed him over health violations he allegedly shot and killed three of them who had come to examine the plant. A sign outside his plant read, "To all our great customers, the USDA is coming into our plant harassing my employees and me, making it impossible to make our great product."


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Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, is distributed by Random (more...)

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