Food safety GAP survey walks fine line

Mark A. DeSorbo

WASHINGTON, DC—A recent survey conducted by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) of 451 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors indicates that Americans are increasingly at risk of eating meat and poultry tainted with feces and metal shards.

The reason, the consumer advocacy group says, is the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, a revamped meat inspection program that GAP says moves the responsibility for ensuring a safe meat supply from government inspectors to the meat industry.

At issue is the USDA's 1996 policy shift that requires meat processors to adopt food safety checkpoints and to perform tests for foodborne bacteria. That shift, however, does not permit USDA inspectors from pulling contaminated meat from the line the minute they spot it. Rather, they must follow it through the end of the line to see if a plant worker at the safety checkpoint would catch it. If the tainted product makes it through, the USDA inspector can then seize it.

The new approach is a far cry from the actual physical inspection of carcasses, known as “poke and sniff,” for USDA inspectors now spend most of their time reviewing paperwork and test results.

“It sounds to us, as a union, like this is designed to eliminate inspection and they are reducing the numbers gradually,” Arthur Hughes, president of the Northeast Council of Food Inspection Locals told Reuters, adding that the GAP survey is evidence of HACCP's “tragic failure.”

TheEGAP survey indicates that Americans are indeed eating tainted meat. Of 327 inspectors responding to one part of the survey, 210 inspectors indicated that since HACCP's implementation at their plant, there have been instances when they have not taken direct action against contamination that they observed, whereas they would have and could have taken action under the old system. Of those, 206 note that instances occur daily or weekly.

“I was told by a supervisor some time back that if you cook a piece of [feces] to 170 degrees, you can eat it and it won't hurt you,” one inspector anonymously says. “But I don't really think the consumer is aware of the [feces] they are being fed.”

In another part of the survey, 197 out of 391 inspectors responding say that they were instructed to check further down the line to ensure that the system caught contamination they had already observed, but that they were prohibited from removing it when they first observed it. Out of 281, 56 inspectors reported that they were instructed not to document violations they observe while performing slaughter duties.

Out of 362 inspectors, 204 say there were instances when they found contamination, but the plant had no “critical control point” to address it. The survey also said that 199 of 249 inspectors believe that the public's right-to-know about food safety information, including contamination and sanitation, is adversely affected under HACCP.

“When I was writing the non-compliance records I thought needed to be written, the plant complained to me continuously because those records are accessible by the public, and they did not want the consumer to have knowledge of their unsanitary practices,” an inspector claims in the survey section.

The GAP survey also indicates that personnel at food processing plants are actually the ones calling the shots when it comes to HACCP compliance.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection service (FSIS) defends HACCP, saying it gives consumers more protection against E. Coli 0157:H7 and salmonella bacteria, despite the USDA's Office of Inspector General analysis of HACCP that notes similar problems outlined in the GAP survey. Furthermore, the USDA has publicly said its meat inspectors are overloaded and spend too much time on tasks that processors could do themselves, such as checking scales and monitoring carcass water content.

Beth Gaston, an FSIS spokesperson, says meat and poultry is the safest it has ever been, noting that there are 7,500 inspectors working in food processing plants across the country and that the GAP survey is not a fair representation of the federal government's food safety effort.

“The GAP survey is a rather selective survey with selective questions and it was designed to get rather selective answers,” she says. “We recognize HACCP is a fairly new system, and it's not perfect, but we are continuing to build on the advances we have made.”

Nancy Donely, president of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), agrees, saying the Chicago-based non-profit organization disagrees with GAP's portrait of HACCP being an increased threat to consumer health. While the system, she says, needs to be fine-tuned, new protocols have been implemented.

“For the first time in history, companies and the USDA are testing for harmful bacteria in meat and poultry, bacteria that cannot be detected under the prior system,” Donely adds.

Before the U.S. Senate, Dr. Stephen M. Ostroff, associate director of epidemiological science for the National Center for Infectious Diseases, testified in September that because of HACCP foodborne illness is on the decline. He reported noting that E. Coli 0157:H7 infections were down 22 percent, while salmonella enteritidis, which contaminates eggs, is down 48 percent. Salmonella, however, was up two percent due to outbreaks in 1999 in raw sprouts, unpasteurized orange juice and imported mangoes.

Inspectors once had the ability to enforce regulations throughout the plant, but now food safety is conducted under an “industry honor system,” says Felicia Nestor, GAP's food safety director.

“Now, under HACCP, inspectors focus their attention on critical control points, checking paperwork, not food,” she adds. “If they see feces at the top of the line, they can't do anything until it gets to the end of the line. Before HACCP, they could take action.”

Ironically, a June analysis of the HACCP system by the USDA's Office of Inspector General noted that the USDA “reduced its oversight beyond what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer.”

USDA meat inspectors once employed a “poke and sniff” method during actual inspection of carcassses. Now, most inspectors spend their time reviewing paperwork and test results.
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The Inspector General's report indicates that before HACCP, meat and poultry were monitored at every stage of processing by USDA inspectors, but the HACCP program “reversed this arrangement by allowing a plant to monitor itself. It gave the industry, not the government, the primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products.”

The report also notes that limiting the number of “critical control points” in its HACCP plans, a company can reduce the ability of inspectors to ensure that meat is safe.

“Although the Food Safety and Inspection Service requires a minimum of one critical control point per process, we found some listed none. Also, there were HACCP plans that identified hazards for which no control points were listed,” the report says.

The Inspector General and GAP agree that USDA management controls over HACCP programs should be strengthened and the federal government, not the regulated industry, should make the final judgment call on whether a carcass receives approval.

“We're not saying HACCP is worthless,” Nestor adds. “It's just the way it was planned and announced is different from how it was implemented.”


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