In the wake of the most recent hamburger recall in our area, there are calls to beef up meat inspections.
Senator Charles Schumer says he will push for a law to improve federal oversight of meat safety.
Topps Meat Company of Elizabeth, New Jersey went out of business after recalling nearly 22 million pounds of frozen patties - tainted by E. coli.
Schumer says the USDA has become a toothless tiger when it comes to keeping our meat safe.
Now, Senator Charles Schumer is unveiling a plan that would toughen USDA inspections and give the feds more authority to issue recalls.
I wait with baited breath.
This is a problem that comes from elected officials, such as Schumer, forgetting who they actually work for: The people of the U.S. and not the corporations.
The Chicago Tribune reports:
As alarm bells sounded for the second-largest hamburger recall in history, about 250 of the nation's top food safety officials were in Miami setting the "course for the next 100 years of food safety."
That so many U.S. Department of Agriculture field supervisors were in Florida while New Jersey-based Topps Meat Co. was scrambling to recall 21.7 million pounds of hamburger has rankled some USDA inspectors and food safety advocates.
Several USDA inspectors said in interviews that their workloads are doubling or tripling as they take on the duties of inspectors who have left the department, not to be replaced.
"We've been short the whole time I've been in," said one veteran inspector who asked not to be named. "We don't have enough inspectors, but we have too much management. The inspectors are short all the time and getting spread thinner and thinner."
The Topps crisis began last month, when three consumers in New York and Florida fell ill from E. coli poisoning. Soon after that, at least 32 people were sick. The Topps recall, though, began 18 days after the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service confirmed E. coli bacteria in a Topps hamburger.
The undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, Richard Raymond, later said, "We can do better."
FSIS spokeswoman Amanda Eamich, in a written response to questions from the Tribune, said that the USDA's "Miami meeting had no impact on either the timing or decision-making associated with the Topps recall."
FSIS, which regulates meat, poultry and egg production, says it had 7,200 inspectors in 1992 and 7,450 now.
"FSIS ended [fiscal year '07] with the highest number of in-plant employees since 2003," Eamich stated. During the year, FSIS was approved "for more in-plant inspectors than at any time since 2003. The agency has numerous hiring initiatives targeted at recruiting inspectors for these vacancies."
Stan Painter, an inspector and union representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the inspectors, said the actual number of inspectors is closer to 6,500.
The difference, he said, are unfilled vacancies that FSIS permanently carries.
"There are about 1,000 vacancies," Painter said. "It's steadily gotten worse."
Under the federal Meat Inspection Act, USDA inspectors are required to examine animals that are "prepared at any slaughtering, meat-canning, salting, packing, rendering, or similar establishment," and intended for use as food. Inspectors put a USDA stamp on products that pass inspection and reject items that don't pass.
USDA inspectors visit about 6,000 food-production facilities, but some are so large that they require several inspectors. From April to June of this year, inspectors examined 34 million "livestock carcasses" and condemned 54,546 of them, according to FSIS records. For poultry, the numbers jump to an astounding 2.3 billion carcasses inspected and 11 million condemned animals.
Inspectors: Goals not met
The legal requirements for inspections, combined with a reduced force, mean that the inspection goals have not been met for years, according to inspectors. They say the workload is unrealistic, reducing their duties to cursory checks of company records, not the physical examination of meat, poultry and eggs.
"Inspectors are not ... in the vast majority of processing plants full time," said Felicia Nestor, a senior policy analyst for Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based food safety group. "For the most part, inspectors at processing plants are on patrols, meaning they cover a number of plants."
Thus, she said, the patrols are counted as an inspection because of the possibility that inspectors could show up. Questions about the size of the inspection force have come amid a sharp increase in E. coli-related ground beef recalls over previous years.
In the wake of the Topps case, USDA officials are devising a food safety checklist that each of the nation's estimated 1,500 meatpacking plants must complete. Industry representatives point out that incidents of E. coli had declined for several years before increasing this year.
E. coli has actually "declined something in the order of 72 percent over the last five years," said Jim Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation. "It's still at a very low rate, statistically."
Hodges said the meat industry has adopted safety measures, such as steam and vinegar washes, to rid carcasses of E. coli.
At Topps, three USDA inspectors were assigned to the Elizabeth, N.J., plant, which they visited daily on a rotating basis, USDA's Eamich said. But one of those inspectors was responsible for a total of five processing plants. That means spending one hour and 36 minutes each day in each plant, she said.
"This is a problem we've been pointing out to them forever," Nestor said. "There are vacancies and shortages all over the country. In a lot of places, the patrol assignments are doubled and tripled up."
For FSIS, the problem isn't a new one. Following the E. coli contamination and recall of 19 million pounds of ground beef made by ConAgra in 2002, the Department of Agriculture's inspector general conducted an investigation at the request of Congress. The resulting September 2003 report concluded that it was "FSIS policies that effectively limited the documents the inspectors could review and the enforcement actions they were allowed to take."
The agency, the inspector general found, "needs to be more proactive in its oversight."
It was a tragic case of E. coli contamination in 1993 that led to reforms that inspectors today say their agency is reluctant to enforce. The regulatory changes occurred after E. coli poisoning in Jack in the Box hamburgers killed four children and sickened many others.
A bacterium that lives in some cattle's intestines can contaminate meat during the slaughter process, usually when fecal material comes in contact with a meat carcass. In humans, poisoning of this strain of E. coli can cause bloody diarrhea and urine, severe stomach cramps and kidney damage that can lead to death.
After the Jack in the Box case, the USDA required each meat plant to adopt a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan. The plans let companies design their own food safety measures, usually around the need to process beef quickly.
"HACCP is an internationally recognized, prevention-based food safety program," Eamich said. "Inspection personnel have full authority to take immediate action to prevent the entry of adulterated products into commerce."
The hope was that meatpacking plants would adopt better practices. But inspectors today say their jobs have been reduced to monitoring a company's hazard analysis plan, instead of enforcing USDA's own inspection regulations.
"They [meatpacking companies] write their own plan," said one inspector, who asked to remain anonymous. "They write everything for themselves. We're 'monitoring' that now. It's just a joke. We mostly check paper now. You can put anything you want on paper."