WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The president of the American Meat Institute, J. Patrick Boyle, told a Senate subcommittee that efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve its meat inspection system have not been successful.
In testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Agricultural Research May 24, Boyle said instances of contaminated meat and poultry have increased under USDA's policy of trimming contaminants off carcasses.
"The inspection system has changed little in any way that offers greater consumer protection," Boyle said. "Unfortunately, the strategy USDA has mandated for controlling contamination -- hand trimming visible contaminants off carcasses with knives -- has, in most cases, increased, not controlled contamination."
The General Accounting Office also reported the day of the hearing that government meat inspections under the Food Safety and Inspection Service are "only marginally better today at protecting the public from harmful bacteria than it was a year ago, or even 87 years ago when it was first put in place. The ability of the inspection system to detect harmful bacteria, evaluate how serious the problem is, and take corrective action remains limited." Also, FSIS still does not know where in the production and processing cycle microbial contamination is most likely to occur, the GAO said.
FSIS also is limited in responding to emergencies because under law it is required to perform continuous inspections at slaughter plants and to visit them daily, and so cannot adjust the frequencies of its inspections. FSIS has, however, heightened awareness among consumers and retailers of the importance of properly handling and cooking meat, the GAO said.
Government meat and poultry inspections have been scrutinized by Congress since the January 1993 E.coli poisonings in the Pacific Northwest stemming from undercooked hamburger meat from a fast-food restaurant. In response, FSIS announced a two-track plan to improve the current system. The first track is an effort to improve the existing system, which relies primarily on sight, smell and touch by inspectors. The second track would involve a longer-term overhaul to be in place by the year 2000, which would involve microbial tests. Boyle of AMI said in a survey of 15 major beef packing plants in the past year, 11 reported an increase in total coliform bacteria counts on beef carcasses. Another study of 13 beef plants operating under FSIS's Zero Tolerance enforcement during that time showed that 10 reported increases in E.coli counts on beef carcasses, Boyle said. Two plants showed a decrease in counts and one plant showed no change, he said.
AMI is urging carcass spray washing using hot water alone or in combination with an antibacterial solution be used to clean beef.
Boyle also complained about inconsistent inspections and inspectors who retaliate against plants that make complaints by slowing production.
Patricia Jensen, acting assistant secretary for marketing and inspection services at USDA, however, defended inspections, and said, "Considerable care has been taken to ensure that the clean meat policy is being implemented fairly and uniformly at cattle slaughter plants."