USDA Plans to Expand Worrisome Meat-Inspection Program

Failed pilot inspection program leaves feces (and other contaminants) on beef and pork—and the feds want to keep it going.

USDA meat inspection e. coli

(Jason Lee/Reuters)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Remember when we reported that the United States Department of Agriculture was set to relax oversight of the poultry industry and allow slaughterhouses to speed up their kill lines? Food-safety experts lined up at the time to condemn the policy, which would privatize slaughterhouse inspections and allow poultry processing plants to kill the birds 25 percent faster.

As it turns out, the USDA has been piloting a similar process in five American hog plants for the past decade. Kill lines at these facilities were sped up by as much as 20 percent and the number of USDA safety inspectors at each plant was cut in half. We learned this week that the plants using the pilot process are some of the worst offenders when it comes to health and safety violations, according to the USDA’s own figures and extensive reporting by the Washington Post.

Serious health violations abound at three of the five pork facilities in the pilot; meat with “chunks” of fecal matter and other contaminants made it to the end of the processing line before it was caught by inspectors. (The plants were cited with violations for letting tainted meat get that far along without being noticed.)

The process of lax inspections and faster kill lines has been used internationally too, with even worse results. A Canadian beef plant using the new system sent products tainted with E. coli into the market—an outbreak that led to the recall of 8.8 million pounds of beef and beef products in Canada and the United States. And several sped up Australian plants shipped meat still containing “chunks” of fecal matter and partly digested food, which was thankfully stopped at the border.

All of which makes faster kills lines and fewer inspectors a bad idea of meat processing, right? Not as the USDA sees it. The Administration wants to expand the failed program nationwide after it finishes up a review of the pilot, which should be completed by next spring. Food-safety advocates are in an uproar over that possibility.

“Expanding the trial inspection program that the USDA has been using is a very bad idea,” says Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety. “The program has some of the worst problems in the hog processing business. Moving the lines faster and reducing the number of inspectors and then relying more on company employees for nominal inspection is a good way to make our meat and poultry less safe.”

Hanson went on to call the policy allowing companies to inspect their own product “a travesty,” and outlined a call to action for the USDA regarding its handling of meat and poultry production and imports. She’d like to see the USDA adopt stiffer penalties for companies caught shipping contaminated products—including jail time—while providing better protections for workers who report safety violations to the authorities. The center’s suggestions also included tighter border control for contaminated meats coming from abroad, lowering inspection costs for small-scale meat processors, and declaring more pathogens illegal in food.

“If companies cannot legally ship food that is contaminated, knowingly or not, they will have to do a better job,” she says. 

Hanson believes our society cannot trust food corporations to honestly inspect their own meat and poultry, adding, “the new ‘lite’ inspection program would cut the heart out of the federal verification program.”

In the meantime, the rest of us might just take this as a little hint to keep cutting back our meat intake more and more, or get to know our farmers and ranchers. Because if the pilot is indeed expanded, your steak or pork chop could become significantly less appetizing.

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