- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2000

A study released yesterday by two public-interest groups contends a meat-inspection program initiated by the Clinton administration actually is weakening food protection.

"Contrary to what was promised by the Clinton administration, the [inspection] program is being used to weaken meat inspection by restricting inspectors' authority," said Felicia Nestor, food-safety project director for the Government Accountability Project.

Public Citizen, a consumer group, joined the accountability project to survey hundreds of federal meat inspectors on the successes and failures of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) program. The survey suggests that the inspection program allows contaminated food to reach consumers.

President Clinton and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman initiated the program in 1996 to give greater inspection power to the meat industry itself, the groups said.

However, the two groups say the changes amount to an honor system that is being abused by the industry and renders inspectors useless except to review paperwork.

Industry inspectors responding to the group's survey said meat-packing companies are allowing contaminants such as feces, vomit and metal shards into a substantial amount of meat and poultry products.

"President Clinton and Secretary Glickman pledged that the program would add to the protections consumers enjoyed under the old system, not subtract from them by limiting the authority of government meat inspectors," Miss Nestor said.

Philip Derfler, deputy administrator for food-safety inspection service at the Agriculture Department, said there is no evidence of increased bacteria in meat products. Mr. Derfler said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting the number of human illnesses caused by bacteria is "way down."

"We believe food safety is improving under HACCP and our people are doing a good job. I don't think there's a reason to be concerned," Mr. Derfler said.

Public Citizen was founded by Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, and Mr. Derfler confirmed that both groups work closely with unions representing federal employees affected by the program.

Asked whether the report was political in nature, Mr. Derfler said: "You can draw your own conclusions. My job is to protect food safety, and this is what I'm doing."

A spokesman for the National Joint Council of Food Inspector Locals appeared at yesterday's press conference and was critical of the department's program.

The report said that when inspectors see potentially deadly bacteria or chemicals, they are not allowed to remove the meat or poultry from production lines until it has passed all company controls. By then, it said, the contamination is still dangerous, but may have been spread so thin it is difficult to see.

The report stated that 87 percent of inspectors said that company employees secretly ask for inspectors' help when they know problems are occurring, because they fear company retaliation.

Nearly half of 451 inspectors surveyed said there were instances when they did not take "direct action" after spotting contamination on carcasses, which they would have done under the old system.

"Again, that's what happens on a good day," Miss Nestor said.

The report recommends that the program be re-evaluated and re-drawn and consumer protections reinstated, including continuous physical inspection of carcasses, pre-operational inspection of sanitation, and the authority of meat inspectors to require the removal of contamination at all points during slaughter and meat processing.

"The damage must be undone," the report said. "The president and secretary of agriculture should put the American consumer first and reaffirm the original commitment that the program will add protections, not reduce government oversight."

Mr. Derfler said any inspector letting such contaminants out the door "is not doing his job."

"It is our legal responsibility to do it, and we do it," he said.

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