USDA new rule for pork inspection puts public safety at risk
How the meat industry pressures federal regulators for less inspection, which compromises the safety of the food supply – Part 2

How the meat industry pressures federal regulators for less inspection, which compromises the safety of the food supply – Part 1

Beef Side Being InspectedWhen I was a consumer food columnist for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, I wrote two articles on meat inspection.

At the time, in 1984, the meat industry was proposing speeding up lines and turning over some of the meat inspection duties performed by federal meat inspectors to employees of the meat companies.

I became interested in the topic because In read about it in a newsletter from one of the Public Interest Research groups. I went to a local slaughter house and wrote about what I saw. One of the workers was smoking and spit on the floor when he was trimming a carcass. My editors spiked the article. When I arrived in the newsroom, they told me about rejecting my article. I quickly wrote a substitute article about a government publication for my column that day.

My editors said if I really wanted to write something worthwhile about meat inspection, I should go to Washington Beef in the Tri-cities and report on meat inspection in the bigger operation there. I took the assignment and I worked on the articles for several months, but they were never published. The editors apparently thought they were too controversial.

On my blog Wednesday, I wrote about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s adopting a new rule on pork slaughtering – the same thing I wrote about years ago, speeding up lines and turning inspection duties over to meat companies. It’s unbelievable the meat industry is continuing to undermine effective meat inspection in the same way 35 years later.

My three-part series on meat inspection will include two articles I wrote in 1984 about meat inspection that were rejected by The Spokesman Review. Part 3 will be an update on what’s happening now in meat inspection.

Article 1 reports on tours I took of two Washington Beef facilities: a slaughterhouse in Toppenish, Washington, and a meat processing plant in Union Gap, Washington.

Meat processing plant

At Washington Beef’s processing plant in Union Gap, Washington, USDA inspection procedures changed in April 1983. Three employees now check the plant for cleanliness. The employees, part of a new USDA program, called “total quality control,” carry out some of the inspection work USDA inspector Dan Spencer used to do at the plant. To cut inspection costs, the USDA has turned over some of the meat inspection duties to the meat companies themselves. But Spencer said he monitors the quality control workers.

When the plant begins operating, meat company employees, who are assigned “quality control” duties, are responsible for seeing that sanitary procedures are followed.

During processing, sides of beef are cut in three parts – loins, chucks, and rounds and ribs. Workers in a large room trim cuts from these sections at three tables.

How total quality control works

A quality control worker stands at the end of each of the three tables to watch for defects, such as blood clots, abscesses missed in previous inspections, pieces of sweetbreads (a gland around the neck) or bones in boneless meat, said Ron Hankel, plant supervisor, who conducted a tour of the Union Gap facility. They also check to see that the amount of fat left on certain cuts meets company specifications.

In another room, a fourth quality control worker checks scraps of meat and fat left over after primal (major) cuts are removed from the bone. A 30-pound sample is taken from each half hour of production and if too many defects are noted, workers must recheck the material called trim, which is sold for hamburger.

After meat pieces are trimmed from portions of the side, they are placed on conveyor belts and sent to a vacuum pack machine. Next they are boxed according to cuts and loaded into trucks for shipment to supermarkets or processing plants throughout the state.

The role of the inspector

Spencer walks through the plant 10 or more times a day. If he sees a violation of regulations, he talks to quality control workers about taking action, such as placing a reject sticker on equipment or meat. Before Washington Beef became a total quality control operation, Spencer would have taken these actions himself. Spencer said that plants under the total quality control program produce meat that is no less clean than those plants still inspected directly by USDA.

Washington Beef is a conscientious firm, Spencer said, and sanitation problems are few. But he adds, “You have to be on your toes to keep up with a lot of tonnage in a day’s time.”

Spencer is also responsible for inspection at two other meat plants in the Yakima area. They are not total quality control plants.

The Washington Beef plant operates two shifts a day and another inspector is responsible for the second shift.

Processing plant production

Each day plant workers cut about 800 to 1,000 carcasses into smaller pieces for sale throughout the state. The beef sides come from the company’s slaughterhouses in Toppenish and Ellensburg. About 700,000 pounds of meat are handled at the plant each day, said Hankel.

Beef slaughterhouse

In slaughterhouses, unlike processing plants where inspectors come and go during the day or where some of the inspection duties can be performed by company workers under total quality control, USDA inspectors must examine each animal for signs of disease or contamination.

At 6 a.m., USDA inspector William Ernst begins his work day in the animal pens alongside the Washington Beef Inc. slaughtering plant near Toppenish, Washington. He is checking live animals to see if they are healthy.

He marks diseased or defective animals with a “suspect” tag and places them in a pen for examination by a veterinary supervisor. The supervisor can send such animals to the kill floor, where they receive a thorough examination after slaughter, or they are condemned and shot outside the plant.

The slaughtering

After live cattle are visually checked, they are herded into the plant from outdoor holding pens two at a time. They are stunned and their throats are slit.

After cattle are killed, they hang one after the other on an overhead trolley, a wheel system called a “rail,” which carries them through the 35,000 square-foot slaughterhouse.

Workers remove the hide, head and other parts like ears, noses and hooves.

USDA inspection

USDA inspector Ernst checks the heads and tongues for disease.

After heads are passed by inspectors, meat is removed and bones are sent down a chute to the basement where inedible meat is rendered. (Other bones, inedible scrap meat, inedible organs and fat from throughout the plant are also sent there. They are ground, cooked, placed in pressurized tanks and separated into tallow and meat meal. The meat meal, a brown material which looks very dry canned dog food, is used for chicken and turkey feed. The tallow is sold to Japan.)

While the heads are being inspected and processed, in a nearby part of the plant two workers standing by the first part of a 40-foot moving table top cut the viscera (internal organs) from the body. Two inspectors examine the organs as they move by.

The meat inspectors slice open hearts, lungs and livers to look for signs of disease – liver flukes, abscesses, parasites in the heart, for example.

Inspectors condemn diseased and infested individual organs. They also examine the organs to make an assessment of the health of the animal. For example, some types of defective livers could indicate the entire animal should be rejected.

Edible organs are chilled in a big tub at the end of the viscera table. Upon removal, they are stamped with the USDA’s stamp of approval and hung on hooks on portable carts. When the carts are full, they are taken to coolers.

After the viscera is removed, the body is cut in half.

Another inspector, called a rail inspector, checks the sides as they continue their trip along the rail. The inspector examines the kidneys, which are left attached to the carcass, and he looks for contamination.

After the sides are passed by the rail inspector, they are spray washed. Next they go to the cooler where they are covered with cloth, called a shroud. The shroud gives the fat on the sides a smooth appearance. The shrouds are removed the next morning and the USDA purple stamp of approval is placed on each primal cut.

The sides of beef are then loaded into trucks for shipment.

Ernst said it is more difficult to keep meat clean in a slaughterhouse than a processing plant because of the blood, dampness and problems with dirt and hair from the hide. And he said some meat can be contaminated in slaughterhouses even though the company and inspectors are doing an adequate job. “One hundred percent [clean meat] is tough to get,” he said. “You won’t get 100 percent clean beef, hair-free beef, dirt-free beef.”

Slaughterhouse production

About 650 animals a day are slaughtered at the Washington Beef plant in Toppenish with the firm slaughtering another 450 cattle daily at its plant in Ellensburg.

My next article will be “How the Meat Industry Pressures Federal Regulators for Less Inspection, Which Compromises the Safety of the Food Supply – Part 2.”

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