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Consumer groups warn about potential for contaminated meat

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Frequent contamination spotted

Contamination bad for business

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Americans face a growing risk of eating feces, vomit and metal shards in meat and poultry because the U.S. Agriculture Department is allowing companies to perform more of their own food safety inspections, two consumer groups and a labor union said on Tuesday.

Their survey of 451 federal inspectors showed many were concerned that too much contaminated meat and poultry was slipping through company production lines under the government's new food safety procedures. The 451 respondents represent about six percent of all federal meat inspectors.


Public Citizen, the Government Accountability Project and the American Federation of Government Employees said the USDA's decision to give plants more responsibility for safety will unravel public health gains made since author Upton Sinclair documented grisly slaughterhouse conditions in "The Jungle."

The USDA contends that its data shows the new meat inspection procedures give consumers more protection against microscopic diseases such as E. coli 0157:H7 and salmonella.

The activist groups disagree.

"Our survey warns consumers that on a good day, their meat and poultry are inspected under an industry honor system," Felicia Nestor, food safety director for the Government Accountability Project, told reporters at a news conference.

"Federal inspectors check paperwork, not food, and are prohibited from removing feces and other contaminants before products are stamped with the purple USDA seal of approval," she added.

Frequent contamination spotted

Some 206 meat inspectors who responded to the survey said there were weekly or monthly instances when they did not take direct action against animal feces, vomit, metal shards or other contamination because of the new USDA rules.

At issue is the USDA's broad policy shift in 1996 to require the owners of slaughter plants to adopt a series of food safety checkpoints and to perform scientific tests for microscopic bacteria to confirm that meat and poultry is safe.

That approach has meant the redeployment of USDA inspectors in an experiment at some three dozen slaughter plants. Instead of physically examining carcasses on the production line -- a technique known as "poke and sniff" -- they now scrutinize company paperwork and test results.

"It sounds to us, as a union, like this is designed to eliminate inspection and they are reducing numbers gradually," said Arthur Hughes, president of the Northeast Council of Food Inspection Locals.

The government's pilot program was successfully challenged in court by the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many of the 7,500 meat inspectors. A federal appeals court ruled in June that the nearly century-old law requires the physical inspection of cattle, pig, chicken and other meat carcasses by USDA employees.

The court ruling came after the USDA's own office of inspector general, an independent investigative arm of the department, issued a 400-page report that urged tighter rules for meat and poultry plants to protect consumers. The report said the USDA needed to improve its monitoring of plants and foodborne illness testing techniques.

Last week, the USDA offered to station an inspector on the production line at pilot plants specifically to watch for contamination problems. The inspectors union said that was not enough to fix the problems with safety procedures.

Contamination bad for business

USDA officials were not immediately available to comment on the new survey of meat inspectors.

Last week, Food Safety and Inspection Service administrator Tom Billy said traditional inspection techniques fell short in protecting consumers. "While traditional inspection is good, it could be better. Too many food safety defects are passing through the current inspection system," he said.

Physical inspection of every carcass is difficult with production lines typically moving 85 to 140 birds per minute through a poultry plant.

Meat and poultry companies insist it is in their own best interests to avoid food safety shortcuts.

By some estimates, the 1993 outbreak of deadly E. coli 0157:H7 in hamburgers sold by a Jack in the Box restaurant cost the company close to $1 billion in lawsuits, hospital costs and lost sales.

Dane Bernard, a vice president of the National Food Processors Association, said the new survey was based on a small sample of inspectors but that USDA should examine the results to identify possible ways of improving its policies.

"We're in the early stages of building a new food safety inspection system," Bernard said. "We see the concern over union jobs being behind a lot of this battle."

The American Meat Institute, a trade group, said the new USDA rules do not prevent inspectors from stopping contaminated meat. The survey's "anecdotal evidence is no match for objective statistics that show our meat and poultry supply is safe and getting safer," the AMI said in a statement.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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United States Department of Agriculture's Home Page
National Food Processors Association the Food Safety People
American Meat Institute: AMI Online
Public Citizen
Government Accountability Project: Whistleblower Support
American Federation of Government Employees

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