USDA pilot program fails to stop contaminated meat
WASHINGTON — A meat inspection program that the Agriculture Department plans to roll out in pork plants nationwide has repeatedly failed to stop the production of contaminated meat at American and foreign plants that have already adopted the approach, documents and interviews show.
The program allows meat producers to increase the speed of processing lines by as much as 20 percent and cuts the number of USDA safety inspectors at each plant in half, replacing them with private inspectors employed by meat companies. The approach has been used for more than a decade by five American hog plants under a pilot program.
But three of these plants were among the 10 worst offenders in the country for health and safety violations, with serious lapses that included failing to remove fecal matter from meat, according to a report this spring by the USDA inspector general. The plant with the worst record by far was one of the five in the pilot program.
In these cases, the contaminated meat did not leave the plants because it was caught by government inspectors once it reached the end of the processing line. But federal officials consider this too late in the process and repeatedly cited the plants for serious safety failures.
While the inspection procedures are still in the experimental stage, the USDA has allowed other countries to use a process deemed to be equivalent in plants producing red meat for export to the United States.
Within the last two years, plants using the procedures in Canada and Australia have experienced a rash of problems, according to internal emails, letters and other documents.
Last fall, for example, a Canadian beef-processing plant using the inspection system had to recall 8.8 million pounds of beef and beef products tainted with E. coli — about 2.5 million pounds of which were in the U.S. market. Canadian government safety inspectors said the faster line speeds were partly responsible for the contamination.
And since the beginning of last year, 11 shipments of beef, mutton and goat meat from at least four Australian plants using the procedures were stopped at U.S. ports because of contamination, which included fecal matter and partly digested food, records show. (Both fecal matter and partly digested food may contain concentrated and complex strains of bacterium such as E. coli and listeria, which can be deadly.)
Officials in the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) declined interview requests for this article. They also did not respond to written questions.
USDA officials have told federal auditors that the agency plans to complete its evaluation of the pilot program by the spring and that it hopes after that to propose rules for expanding the inspection system nationwide.
Dozens of chicken plants have also been enrolled in a similar pilot program. The USDA plans to finalize regulations this year, allowing the procedures to be used in all chicken and turkey plants.
Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, has praised the new inspection procedures. One week before the USDA inspector general's office issued the critical report this spring, Hagen told the Food Chemical News, a trade publication, that the pilot initiative has produced safety results the department is "comfortable [with] and confident in."
Others involved with federal inspection policies in pork plants are concerned.
"There is a lot of controversy surrounding this program," Patricia Buck, a member of the USDA's National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection and co-founder of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, said. "We should not be putting it out there, saying it is OK for other countries to use, when it has so many flaws and when contaminated meat is coming in."
The new meat inspection program dates to 1997, when the USDA announced it would allow five large hog plants to enroll in the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based Inspection Models Project, commonly referred to as HIMP. The plants would be able to accelerate their processing lines and use company employees, instead of some USDA inspectors, to check that the meat was safe.
The kickoff of HIMP in the late 1990s was welcomed as a victory by the meat industry, which had pushed for decades for the changes. Meat companies anticipated they would increase profits by moving more carcasses through their slaughterhouses each day while reducing government oversight.
The government, for its part, expected to save millions of dollars annually by reducing its inspection force, and projected that consumers would see lower prices.
The USDA promised at the time to study the performance of the new inspection procedures adopted by the hog plants in the pilot program.
But the agency never did so. The USDA inspector general reported this spring that, after 15 years, the department has yet to study whether the program was meeting its stated goals of improving both food safety and efficiency in plants.
In response to the criticism, the USDA said it would complete a study by March and then hopes to make the case for extending the inspection system across the nation's 608 swine plants.
Auditors from the inspector general's office found that three of the five plants in the pilot program had racked up scores of health and safety violations, many of them for problems that were never fixed. The report did not identify the five plants and said that, since no study had been done, it was difficult to determine if contamination and other deficiencies could be attributed directly to the inspection system.
But the auditors pointed out that the safety records at the three most-troubled pilot plants were worse than those at hundreds of other U.S. swine plants that continued to operate under the traditional system, which features slower processing speeds and about double the number of government inspectors.
In a separate report issued this month, the Government Accountability Office said it would be difficult to recommend that the experimental procedures be extended across the country based on the pilot program. The pilot program was too small to "provide reasonable assurance that any conclusions can apply more broadly to the universe of 608 hog plants in the United States," the report found. Moreover, it said, the USDA had not collected comparable data from pilot plants and traditional plants needed to evaluate the procedures.
In interviews, six USDA inspectors working in the pilot plants raised health concerns. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they believed their jobs would be in jeopardy otherwise.
Several said company and government workers are yelled at, threatened and shunned if they try to slow down or stop the accelerated processing lines or complain too aggressively about inadequate safety checks. They also warned that the reduced ranks of government inspectors in the plants has compromised the safety of the meat.
"We are no longer in charge of safety," said an inspector with more than 15 years of experience. "That's what the public needs to know."
In recent years, several American trade partners have sought U.S. government permission to let their meat-processing plants use procedures similar to those in the HIMP pilot program.
USDA auditors visited plants in Canada, Australia and New Zealand to perform "equivalency reviews" and determined there were "no substantial differences between" the alternative inspection system those three countries were using and the one used in the pork pilot project, records show. Auditors compared, among other things, how meat company inspectors were positioned along the processing lines.
In 2006, the USDA allowed three beef-processing plants in Canada that wanted to export to the U.S. to use a system that closely resembled the one used in the American pilot plants.
While there were occasional cases of contaminated meat being rejected at the U.S. border, no serious problems surfaced until September 2012, when both Canadian and USDA officials found E. coli in thousands of pounds of beef that were traced back to one of the three processing plants, which was owned by XL Foods Inc. (The plant is now owned by a subsidiary of JBS USA, the largest beef producer in North America. JBS did not return calls or respond to emails seeking comment.)
That contaminated beef was destroyed. But more than 12,000 head of cattle had been slaughtered during the period when the meat was contaminated, and not all the tainted meat was caught before it reached consumers.
By mid-October, at least 18 Canadians had been poisoned by XL Foods' beef, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Many were hospitalized with diarrhea, inflamed bowels and internal bleeding. There were no reported illnesses in the United States.
Agency inspectors told a Canadian government-appointed independent review panel, which released a report in June, that the pace of the new inspection system could compromise food safety.
"If the line speed is too fast, workers would have little time to examine and trim off visible contamination from carcasses," the report said. "Staff would also have insufficient time to properly sterilize their knives between trimmings."
Inspectors also said the processing speeds made it difficult to properly apply sanitizing sprays used to kill E. coli. "If sprays are not properly applied to the carcass, they could serve to spread the contamination across a wider area," the report said.
Bill Bennett, a union representative for government inspectors who worked at the plant, said that government employees in Canada are no longer positioned at places along the line where they can spot contamination and that company employees are reluctant to slow or stop the lines when a problem arises. If they try, they can be overruled by plant supervisors, said Bennett, of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401.
Parthi Muthukumarasamy, acting director of meat programs at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said in an interview that the government reviewed concerns about line speeds and believes they are invalid. "We don't believe the line speed is a factor. The line speeds are comparable to those in the U.S.," he said referring to HIMP model.
Muthukumarasamy said that Canadian plants, unlike those in the United States, have not reduced the total number of on-site government inspectors, though they have been moved from key locations along the processing lines to largely supervisory roles. He also said the recall has prompted several reforms, including giving government officials the authority to request in-depth safety inspections of plants by outside experts.
Australian plants using the alternative inspection procedures began exporting to the United States with USDA permission in 2008.
Then, in the first part of last year, the USDA itself began raising red flags about Australian meat after "multiple" shipments of contaminated meat showed up at port-of-entry inspections and were rejected by U.S. officials, according to correspondence from Ronald Jones, assistant administrator of the USDA's Office of International Affairs.
In an initial letter, the USDA asked Australian food-safety officials to provide a detailed plan to improve inspections in the plants, which the Australian officials did in June. But in a second warning letter from the USDA in December, Jones said the new safety measures put in place over the summer weren't "effective across the system"and that meat with both fecal matter and partly digested food, produced at multiple plants using the new inspection system, continued to show up at U.S. ports. Internal documents show that the contaminated shipments included beef, mutton and goat meat.
According to Australian email exchanges, the USDA labeled Australia "the worst performer of all exporting countries."
Internal emails between Australian trade industry officials and government officials showed they worried that efforts to expand the new inspection system to all red-meat plants might stall because of the contamination problems.
This June, after yet another round of contaminated meat was found at U.S. ports, the USDA called an emergency meeting in Washington with USDA food-safety officials and Australian food-safety officials, records show. A PowerPoint from the meeting, obtained by The Washington Post, shows that Australian plants were temporarily barred from exporting to the United States and that USDA and food-safety officials in Australia were auditing the plants to find the source of the problem.
Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry officials said that since 2012, there have been 11 port-of-entry detections of contamination, including detections of E. coli. Seven occurred in 2012 and four have happened this year, all from plants using the alternative system, called the Australian Export Meat Inspection System, or AEMIS.
In a written statement, officials at the Australian Agriculture Department said they believed "these detections should be reasonable" since the volume of exported meat to the U.S. increased 30 percent during this time and because the U.S. "intensified" its port-of-entry inspections with the new system.
"Against this background, analysis of [point-of-entry] detections published by FSIS indicates detections in meat product imported from Australia is comparable to detections in product imported from other countries," the statement said.
New Zealand is the country that was most recently given USDA approval to export meat to the United States from plants using the alternative inspection procedures. Since permission was granted in 2011, no meat produced by these plants has been rejected at U.S. ports because of contamination, according to New Zealand food-safety officials.
But New Zealand government inspectors warn that the plants are at times producing contaminated meat.
Ian Baldick, representative of the inspectors union who also worked in one of the plants, said that the processing lines are moving too quickly to catch tainted meant and that there is not proper oversight by private company inspectors.
"Tremendous amounts of fecal matter remain on the carcasses," he said. "Not small bits, but chunks."