Posted 01-24-2002 at 19:57:01
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I got this in my email and thought it should be passed on, boy oh boy what a mess!!
Ventura County Star
USDA experiment puts contaminated poultry in markets
By Lance Gay, Scripps Howard News Service
WASHINGTON -- Every chicken-processing plant participating in an experimental Agriculture Department inspection program was unable to keep fecal contamination out of poultry sent off to supermarket, and almost half of the plants produced poultry that was more contaminated than using traditional inspection methods, government investigators say.
Nevertheless, the Agriculture Department announced this week it is expanding the pilot project allowing increased industry self-inspection to all turkey- and chicken-processing plants in the country.
In an 86-page report released Wednesday, the General Accounting Office said a pilot poultry inspection project introduced at 11 plants in 1997 failed to produce meat that has less fecal contamination, or lower levels of harmful pathogens, than a traditional inspection regime of requiring federal inspectors to inspect each carcass. The GAO is a congressional unit that audits federal programs.
The Agriculture Department insisted the new program would provide a level of quality in meat "equal to or better than" traditional methods of inspection that required federal inspectors to look at each carcass as it comes off the processing line. The experimental program allows producers to inspect their own product, and to speed up processing lines, producing more chickens each shift.
But using the department's own data on results from the 11 pilot plants compiled in 1999 and 2000, GAO
The result for levels of salmonella in processed chickens was worse at five of the 11 plants than it was under standards set for traditional inspection systems.
None of the plants was able to meet the government standard of having no fecal contamination in the meat heading for supermarket shelves. Pathogens like E. coli are carried in fecal material.
None of the plants was able to meet all the performance standards set out under government guidelines.
There was no improvement in standards when the program was altered in June 2000 to allow the industry to install microbial baths and other equipment online to reduce pathogen levels.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the report shows that the pilot project "is critically flawed" and urged the Agriculture Department to convene a commission to come up with an alternative inspection regime.
"We need to fix it before going any further down the road of moving inspectors off the inspection lines," Harkin said.
He said the GAO study clearly shows the idea of turning the policing of meat inspection on production lines over to the industry does not work, and "is a recipe for a food-safety disaster." Harkin and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., asked for the GAO report after Scripps Howard News Service reported on government statistics showing contaminated chickens were distributed to consumers under the experimental program.
Carol Tucker Foreman, head of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, said the GAO findings prompted her organization to declare it will no longer support the pilot project.
"The pilot project should be dumped in the garbage along with the dirty chickens it produces," said Foreman, a former assistant secretary of agriculture. "Consumers do not want poop on their poultry, and GAO says that's what you get."
Foreman said her organization was waiting to see if the experimental system might reduce the estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses a year in the United States, but has now concluded it will not.
Felicia Nestor, a food-safety project director with the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, which has been critical of the experimental project, said the GAO findings show that quality control at the plants has been declining over time, instead of getting better.
"The fecal findings at these plants is completely unacceptable," she said.
Delmer Jones, president of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, the union that represents
government meat inspectors, said the report only details shortcomings in industry self-inspection that the union has been exposing.
Jones said he doesn't believe the GAO's findings will produce any changes. "The only thing that is going to get their attention is if there's an outbreak of sickness."
The Agriculture Department says it is considering changes to the experimental project, but intends to expand it nationwide to all poultry and pork production plants on a voluntary basis.
Elsa Murano, the department's undersecretary for food safety, told the National Turkey Federation this week that the agency is making some changes to the program the GAO recommended, including requiring formal training for industry-hired inspectors on processing lines and stricter performance standards.
"Based on comments received to date from all interested parties, including most recently a report by the General Accounting Office we believe that additional changes are warranted to strengthen the program," Murano said.
-- Lance Gay's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.