How the meat industry pressures federal regulators for less inspection, which compromises the safety of the food supply – Part 2
This is the second article in a three-part series on meat inspection. The article was written in 1984 and submitted to The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where I worked as a consumer food columnist, but it was never published. I’m posting the article on my blog to show that the meat industry has been pressuring federal regulators for decades to reduce inspection by government inspectors.
Article 1 in the series, “How the Meat Industry Pressures Federal Regulators for Less Inspection, Which Compromises the Safety of the Food Supply – Part 1,” describes my tours of Washington Beef’s slaughterhouse in Toppenish and processing plant in Union Gap.
Article 2 includes interviews with those who favor and oppose the new USDA inspection procedures.
Times are changing for meat inspection in America.
Traditional methods of checking meat, passed into law 1906 after Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed deplorable conditions in Chicago meat packing plants, look expensive now. The Reagan administration is seeking ways to cut the $1 million a day cost to taxpayers.
USDA’s position on the new procedures
“We are capping costs by putting new procedures into effect,” said Dr. Donald Houston, director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
But Houston said that consumers can still rely on the USDA’s purple stamp of approval to indicate that meat is clean and wholesome.
One of the USDA’s new cost cutting programs is being used in six of the 14 plants under federal meat inspection in the Spokane area. It’s called “total quality control.” Under the program, employees with “quality control” duties in processing plants are assigned functions that federal meat inspectors have performed in the past. For example, they check plants to see that they are clean before operation begins and they watch for unsanitary conditions or meat during the processing.
A federal inspector oversees company employees and they prepare reports on their work for the inspector.
Total quality control programs are being instituted in processing plants, where sides of meat are cut into smaller pieces or meat products are made, but not in slaughterhouses.
Here’s how meat inspection works in processing plants that don’t have total quality control: USDA inspectors check to see if the plants are clean before operation begins. They oversee the trimming of meat into smaller pieces, and they watch hams, sausages, frozen dinners, soups and similar products as they are made. In addition, they collect samples which are tested to see if the products have the correct ingredients and to determine if meat and meat products are free from bacteria, toxins, harmful chemicals or drug residues. Most inspectors, who are assigned to processing plants, are responsible for more than one plant so they are in and out of the plants during the working day.
The Spokane area has 14 plants under federal inspection. There are two small slaughterhouses and 12 processing plants. Most of the processing plants cut meat into smaller portions for wholesale and/or retail. Some make meat products like ham in addition. One makes corn dogs.
Two Spokane plants with under 12 employees have had the new total quality control programs for over a year.
Meat industry position on the new procedures
“Total quality control has a lot of advantages,” said Tom Stachecki, plant manager for Angus Meats Inc., a firm which cuts sides of meat into smaller portions for restaurants, hotels and nursing homes. “It seems to be working well for us.”
Stachecki says company employees can do a better job than government inspectors do. He says company employees are there all the time and they can address problems right away.
Floyd Surdez, plant manager Olympic Foods Inc., a firm which makes corn dogs for sale throughout the West, agrees.
He said the total quality control program is not expensive for the company despite the fact that employees must take time to fill out reports.
Jim Crowe, president of Bonanza Packing Co. Inc., the largest meat processing plant in the Spokane area, says his firm received approval from the USDA Feb. 6 to operate a total quality control program. Crowe said the program will be more expensive for his firm because more workers will be checking products. But, he added, it is worth it to have as good a product as possible.
Those opposed to the new methods
A local USDA meat inspector, who asked not to be identified, said total quality control could result in a lessening in the quality of the meat sold to consumers. And he added, it won’t work unless the owner takes pride in producing a good product.
A Washington, D.C., based consumer group, Center for Study of Responsive Law, also questioned the effectiveness of turning meat plant inspection over to the industry.
Kathleen Hughes, who wrote a publication for the organization called “Return to the Jungle,” says meat companies could “cheat” (take unacceptable shortcuts) under total quality control programs. There are problems, she said in a telephone interview, in letting the “foxes guard the hen house.”
Proper monitoring and stiffer penalties are needed to prevent unacceptable meat from being sold to consumers under the new program, Hughes said.
How many companies have the new programs
About 383 of the 8,000 meat plants under federal meat inspection in the United States have total quality control programs, said John McClung, USDA spokesman. Another 900 plants have partial quality control programs where only one aspect of the plant’s inspection like sanitation or a special grinding or cooking operation are turned over to the company under a federal inspector’s supervision.
McClung says he has no estimate of how much money can be saved by the agency and meat companies for the use of total quality control systems. The savings depends on the size of the plant. Several plants have saved $2,000 per month with total quality control, he said. The savings occur because meat companies do not have to reimburse the USDA for overtime costs for inspectors.
USDA proposes more changes
Two other cost saving measures the USDA supports would require a change in federal law.
The agency wants to change meat and poultry inspection laws that require a federal inspector to visit a processing plant once a day. The proposal is called “less than continuous inspection.” McClung says inspectors do not need to be in all processing plants every day.
Unlike slaughter house inspection where every animal must be examined, processing plant inspection can be reduced, he said.
Plants which have a good compliance record and high technology equipment can be inspected less often, two or three times a week, the agency spokesman said. And McClung added, the agency will be able to concentrate resources and give attention to plants that cause them trouble.
“We have been inspecting meat the same way for 75 years,” McClung said. “The industry has changed dramatically since World War II.”
McClung said about half of the 2,000 to 2,500 inspectors now checking processing plants daily could lose their jobs or be resigned other duties (such as slaughterhouse inspection) if the legislation allowing less than continuous inspection passes. There has been little interest in Congress in the bill this year. But it is possible a less than continuous inspection bill will be attached to a bill that is moving and passed before Congress adjourns this fall.
McClung said the USDA has estimated the agency could save $50 million in a seven-year period if less than continuous inspection passes.
Opposition to the USDA’s new proposals
Hughes says less than continuous inspection would reduce the amount of inspection plants will get. She sees total quality control as a first step to less than continuous inspection – deregulation without doing it legislatively.
Loren Longland, president of the Western Council of Food Inspectors, an affiliate of the American Federation of Government Employees, says the union “vigorously opposes” less than continuous inspection.
“We can see where politics could enter into it,” Langland said in a telephone interview from Seattle. “Those who make big contributions could get less inspection.”
Langland thinks if inspectors continue to go to processing plants daily, the plants will act more responsibly. “When the cat’s away, mice do play.”
The local USDA meat inspector, who asked not to be identified, said the quality of meat on the market would be reduced if the legislation passes and would return to the conditions which existed when Sinclair wrote “The Jungle.”
“Less than continuous inspection is not answer,” he said. “Who is going to be the judge [as to how often plants are inspected]? I say no because it’s unclear.”
The industry’s position the USDA’s new proposals
Jim King, general manager of Washington Beef Inc, which has three meat plants in the Yakima area, said he thinks less than continuous inspection is a good idea.
“I would like to think we would have enough cross checks that it would not be necessary for an inspector to come to a processing plant on a daily basis,” King said.
Two other meat company officials have different opinions.
Crowe says having a USDA meat inspector in a processing plant every day is a good protection for consumers.
And Charles Jennings, vice-president for Iowa Beef Processors (IBP), said he doesn’t know if less than continuous inspection is a good concept. IBP wants the government to have a tough meat inspection program and his firm would be opposed to less than continuous inspection if it lessens the strictness of enforcement, Jennings said in a telephone interview from Dakota City, Nebraska. IBP is the largest meat company in Washington state and the nation.
State instead of federal inspection
Another proposed USDA cost-savings meat inspection program also requires congressional approval. It would allow state inspected meat plants in 27 states to be classed as “equal to federal inspection,” permitting the companies to sell meat in interstate commerce.
The Better Government Association (BGA) thinks the proposal is “blatantly absurd.”
The quality of state inspection programs varies, said Michael Lyons, chief investigator for the BGA. “Some state programs are vigorous, some are not.”
The BGA studied state programs in Florida and Vermont and found “both states are not really doing the kind of job that would be required under federal inspection.”
McClung says the equal to federal inspection concept is still supported by USDA despite recent criticisms by the BGA. Safeguards, such as inspection of the state plants by federal officials about every four months, will insure the state inspection programs will produce clean meat, he said. McClung says he doesn’t know what the cost savings to the agency would be if the proposal passes.
Cost savings would occur because the state inspected plants could sell their meat in interstate commerce and the USDA would not have to spend more money for inspectors to check these plants daily.
McClung said about 5 percent of the meat sold in the U.S. comes from state inspected plants.
Speeding up the lines and other problems
While proposed changes such as less than continuous inspection and equal to federal inspection could affect the quality of the meat supply, a consumer group contends changes already made by the Reagan administration are resulting in more dirty, contaminated meat appearing on the market.
Hughes says in her report “Return to the Jungle” that speeding up the rate at which hogs pass inspectors make it more difficult for inspectors to detect diseased and contaminated meat. Similar speed-ups in cattle and poultry slaughter plants are also planned, she said.
Compounding the problem of higher line speeds are staff shortages, Hughes reports. USDA has left hundreds of inspector positions vacant, despite a General Accounting Office study citing this shortage as one reason behind health violations found in plants, she contends.
Other existing problems discussed in the report are:
- Informal orders to inspectors and their supervisors to relax enforcement – to do a less thorough job of meat inspection.
- Decline of enforcement for residue (pesticides, growth promotants and antibiotics, for example) violations.
Hughes also takes issue with the USDA’s contention that the free market will prevent meat companies from violating health and safety standards. Relying on consumers who get sick from eating meat refusing to buy that brand again is not an effective regulatory technique, Hughes says.
Hughes contends consumers would lose confidence in the government’s purple stamp of approval if they knew how often diseased cows, filthy birds, infected pigs and mislabeled, adulterated or contaminated products end up on grocery shelves
Hughs’ report is based on 1982 interviews with 70 of the USDA’s 6,000 inspectors.
USDA refutes criticism
McClung calls Hughs’ report a superficial, undisciplined work with shoddy research based on anecdotal quotes from unidentified and unidentifiable inspectors.
He said inspectors have not been told to turn their backs on unwholesome conditions.
“Meat inspection is not politically motivated,” McClure said “There has been no attempt to weaken or lessen or reduce inspection whatsoever.”
McClure also says staff shortages and line speed changes are not adversely affecting the quality of meat supplied to the American public. And he contends agency progress for residue monitoring have been expanded and improved.
“The overall enforcement effort of the meat and poultry inspection program is about the same as it has been in the past,” McClure said, “but its review activities are both more systematic and more focused.”