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020141 Group Objects to Drop in Meat Inspectors

January 26, 2002

Washington -- A consumer group is urging the US government to suspend planned rule changes that would reduce the number of federal food inspectors at chicken and hog plants.

Regulators at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are planning later this year to propose replacing their existing inspection regimen with one that relies more heavily on producers to self-police. The proposal comes following a 3-year experiment showing that plants could largely maintain clean production standards even with fewer federal inspectors.

But the US General Accounting Office (GAO) last week released a report criticizing USDA officials for using poor scientific methods in the experiment, conducted at 11 chicken and 3 hog slaughtering plants. The report called the government's study design "unreliable" and urged it not to repeat it in the future.

The planned rule changes would reduce from three to one the number of government food safety inspectors stationed on production lines, replacing them with company employees. The employees would be charged with helping to sort out carcasses showing signs of infection or other contamination, while a government inspector walks the production line as carcasses are processed.

According to GAO's report, the new inspection methods produced mixed results. Two of 11 chicken plants participating in the experiment improved their detection rate for the bacteria E. coli with the new system, while 9 others remained unchanged. Salmonella detection rates improved at 2 plants, declined in 5 others, and remained unchanged in 4 plants.

Meanwhile, detection rates for fecal contamination improved for 4 processors and remained unchanged for 7 under the proposed inspection regimen.

GAO's report criticized USDA's project on the grounds that it did not use standard processes used to eliminate bias from scientific experiments, including control groups or randomization of participating plants.

While the "concept" of the new inspection system has "merit," the report stated, "the design of this pilot (study) will not permit USDA to reach conclusions about whether the new system of modified inspections performs as well as the traditional system."

The GAO report was completed last December but released a week ago on January 17. The release prompted the consumer group Public Citizen to attack USDA's inspection plans.

"This program is just another attempt to deregulate a powerful industry," said Wenonah Hauter, Public Citizen's director of critical mass energy and environment programs. "Most consumers would be appalled to find out that the USDA has even considered reducing the meat inspection system to an industry honor system," she said.

USDA officials announced last week that they will soon be expanding the inspection pilot project to additional volunteering companies. The program will also be expanded to cover turkey processors.

Chicken producers are "supportive of the USDA's intention of going forward with this program on a voluntary basis," said Richard Lobb, a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council. The group's members are responsible for processing more about 90% of the 8 billion meat chickens produced in the US each year.

USDA undersecretary for food safety Elsa Murano said in a speech last week in New Orleans that "additional changes are warranted to strengthen the (inspection) program."

The agency will move to formally train plant employees in contamination techniques and will require plants to use improved statistical methods for determining contamination detection rates.

USDA plans to move ahead later this year with proposed regulation changes designed to make the new inspection procedures permanent, according to an agency release.

Lobb said that the modified inspection regimen could increase some operating costs for producers. But faster processing times and quicker inspections with the program could allow plants to produce 10% to 15% more chickens per year, he said.


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