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.
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, sumofus.org. "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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