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USDA Defends Meat Exports

November 19, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Agriculture Department tried to allay concerns Thursday about contaminated meat being shipped overseas after a report that foreign officials found serious violations while inspecting U.S. processing plants.

The violations of poor handling, bad employee hygiene and improper sterilization are detailed in an internal memo sent by Dr. Mark T. Mina, deputy administrator of the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

The Des Moines Register reported on the memo Thursday.

In that memo, Mina charges that some unidentified plants are operating with serious deviations from U.S. standards as well as those of the importing country.

Some of those deviations include ``direct carcass contamination from careless dressing procedures,″ Mina wrote. During careless dressing, stomach contents and feces can be scattered through the carcass, contaminating it with E. coli and other bacteria.

USDA officials said Thursday any problems found were immediately corrected.

``Several problems were noticed but they were immediately corrected,″ said FSIS spokeswoman Linda Swacina. ``No contaminated or adulterated products left any of these plants.″

The problems were found during recent routine inspections of U.S. plants done by foreign countries. U.S. officials conduct similar inspections of plants in the countries where it gets its imports.

Swacina would not comment on the areas where the violations were found.

The violations are only the latest in a series of problems for the multibillion-dollar U.S. meat export industry.

The European Union, for example, won’t accept U.S. beef because of the use of growth hormones. The EU also denies entry to U.S. poultry unless officials certify that they have not used a chlorine rinse.

Carol Tucker Foreman, a former USDA assistant secretary for food safety who now heads the Safe Food Coalition, said Mina’s memo was especially troubling since most plants are preparing food for both domestic and foreign consumption.

It also creates an accountability problem for the United States, she said. ``You’ve got these people looking at our plants and pointing out we’re not meeting our own standards.″

J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, said it is in industry’s interest to follow safe practices.

``Clearly there is every incentive for meat and poultry packers and processors to produce the safest product possible,″ Boyle said. ``There is no benefit to producing unsafe food.″

Meanwhile, veterinarians working in the plants for the food safety division have accused agency officials of pressuring them to certify meat products that don’t meet export requirements.

In two letters sent recently to USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, the National Association of Federal Veterinarians said a veterinarian ``was disciplined and forced to retire″ for refusing to certify cattle as being from disease-free areas.

Swacina said that all products are inspected although they sometimes may not have been inspected by veterinarians since some plants do not have full-time veterinarians.

``These are their fellow inspectors who have already inspected this product,″ she said, adding that the agency is investigating allegations of harassment.

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