USDA Reverses Self on Plan to Cut Back Inspections
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A flood of complaints has forced the government to withdraw a plan to cut back on federal inspections at plants that turn out hot dogs, chicken soup and other processed foods using meat and poultry.
But officials of the Agriculture Department left open the possibility they would revive the proposal later on, and a meat industry spokesman said a consensus might be sought.
Since the proposal was announced in November, there have been many complaints that it would put greater reliance on the plants themselves to meet federal inspection standards.
Lester M. Crawford, head of the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the proposal would have allowed for ″varying the intensity of inspection at meat and poultry processing plants according to a plant’s ability to consistently produce safe and wholesome product in a sanitary environment.″
Crawford said the proposal was withdrawn, at least for the time being, ″in direct response″ to more than 1,800 comments from the public since it was announced last fall. Most opposed all or parts of the proposal. He said the agency will gather additional information and then determine if a new plan will be drafted.
The withdrawal applied only to the so-called Improved Processing Inspection proposal, which affects processed meat and poultry products. The plan als is known as ″discretionary inspection.″
A 1986 law authorized overhauling the inspection system and putting in place a ″risk-based″ program in which processors with good records would require ″periodic inspection″ rather than the daily supervision previously required.
The most troublesome plants would come under tougher review.
One effect would be to cut in half over time the number of federal inspectors.
Another proposal, called the Streamlined Inspection System for the slaughter of cattle, is still under consideration. A number of consumer groups have rallied against it, alleging that it would increase the chance of tainted beef reaching consumers.
The streamlined cattle inspection program would let federal inspectors in slaughtering operations concentrate on looking for abnormalities such as tumors and abscesses while allowing company employees to check some of the routine tasks to ensure cleanliness.
One of the streamlining effects would be to have carcasses move along the inspection line faster, meaning less time for checking on beef headed for the consumer market.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, had urged the department to withdraw both the inspection proposals, indicating that Congress would step in if the department didn’t reverse itself.
Rep. Ted Weiss, D-N.Y., who heads a Government Operations subcommittee in the House, said Friday’s announcement reflected the panel’s hearings last month which documented the failings of the discretionary inspection program and showed that it should be withdrawn.
But Weiss said he was concerned that USDA was still proceeding with a computer-based system to generate inspectors’ schedules and decide how often each plant will be inspected. At the April 11 hearing, he said, USDA acknowledged that the computer system was seriously flawed.
Weiss said the decision to retain the flawed computer program was ″dangerous and shortsighted″ on the part of the department.
Rich Parker, director of information for the industry-supported American Meat Institute, said the department ″acted judiciously″ in Friday’s announcement to pull back the proposal for inspecting processors.
The decision ″opens the door for developing a consensus″ plan to carry out the 1986 law as Congress intended, and the trade association will cooperate fully with the department and other interests to help design an acceptable plan, he said.
″Consumers can thank these whistleblowers for winning this battle,″ said Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project, which has helped lead the battle against the Agriculture Department proposals.
Elizabeth Hedlund of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy said she was delighted with the decision, calling the original plan ″very poorly conceived.″