Just about the last government function you would want to see privatized is meat inspection.
But under recent and proposed regulatory changes, that is the direction in which the U.S. meat inspection program has been moving.
The results, documented in “The Jungle 2000: Is America’s Meat Fit to Eat,” a report issued by the Government Accountability Project and Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project, have been horrifying.
One federal meat inspector summed up the situation like this: The new regulatory system “ties our hands and limits what we [federal inspectors] can do. If this is the best the government has to offer, I will instruct my family [and] friends to turn vegetarian.”
The problem with meat inspection and food safety is rooted in agribusiness concentration and new technologies. The giant meat-packing firms — including IBP, ConAgra and Cargill — now control an increasingly dominant market share (the top four beef firms controlled 79 percent of the market in 1998); and these mega firms have ushered in the use of new technologies which push carcasses down the assembly lines at increasing velocities. Similar changes have taken place in the poultry industry, dominated by Tyson, Gold Kist, Perdue and Pilgrim’s Pride, plus ConAgra and Continental Grain.
Faster line speed means less opportunity for workers to do their jobs in a thorough and sanitary way, and less opportunity for inspectors to evaluate meat for cleanliness.
On top of these problems, the Clinton administration in 1996 announced the adoption of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point(HACCP) system. As originally designed, HACCP was supposed to supplement the traditional meat inspection process, in which inspectors could demand that a product be condemned or trimmed as soon as they saw a problem. HACCP was supposed to involve additional company inspections at self-identified critical points.
In fact, as “The Jungle 2000” shows, HACCP has become a substitute for the traditional food inspection system. Now the meat packers themselves are in control of the inspection process in processing plants. Inspectors find themselves limited to observing at company-determined critical points — or, even worse, confined to reviewing company documents showing that the company has complied with sanitation requirements.
A survey sent by the Government Accountability Project to meat inspectors shows widespread concern among inspectors that the new system has undermined their ability to do their job and guarantee a safe food supply.
- Two thirds of inspectors said that since HACCP began, there have been instances where they have not taken direct action against contamination — including feces, vomit and metal shards — that they observed and would have taken action against under the old system.
- More than 85 percent of inspectors responding to the survey said that company employees secretly ask them for help with problems in the plant, because they fear supervisor reprisals for speaking out against dirty conditions.
- More than three out of four respondents said that they cannot enforce the law as well under HACCP as before.
- More than half of responding inspectors in plants that are required to test for E.coli report that they never see actual lab results of company testing and are only shown a plant summary.
As bad as things are now, they may get worse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed extending the system of privatized self-inspection to cover slaughterhouses (involving killing, skinning, cleaning and chilling the carcass) as well as processing plants (where carcasses are further processed for consumption). A federal judge has ruled this illegal, but the meat industry is lobbying Congress for new legislation to authorize privatized inspections.
Instead of trying to address worsening sanitation problems, USDA and the meat industry are trying to paper them over. Their “solutions” involve efforts to sterilize dirty food — including food contaminated with fecal matter — through chemical treatments and irradiation. These treatments, which pose potential safety problems of their own, are sad substitutes for clean food.
Privatization of meat inspection has been an unadulterated failure. It is time to halt the trend to more self-inspection, restore the authority and budgets of federal meat inspectors, and demand that the meat and poultry industries deliver sanitary products to consumers.
“The Jungle 2000: Is America’s Meat Fit to Eat,” is available free of charge on the web at: http://www.citizen.org/cmep/what’snew.html or for the print version send a $15.00 US check or money order to: Public Citizen, Publications Dept. Box 1600 20th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009.