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The state of government

meat inspection


According to a former Department of Agriculture (USDA) Director of Food Inspection, Rodney Leonard: "You go back 15 years and it's quite obvious that the USDA has been on a path to deregulate meat and poultry inspection.  And they've tried to do it in a variety of different ways.  Streamlined cattle and poultry (inspection) are only two of the more recent initiatives.  Each time the USDA has tried to convince the public of a program's benefit and failed, they've gone away and come back with a different acronym.  You don't see the USDA making a concerted effort  to deal with the problems within the agency.  Instead, they keep creating inspection programs to resolve the problems that the slaughter and processing industries have."

Quoted in Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisman (reviewed in Civ Ab, Summer 1998)


In her book Slaughterhouse, The shocking Story of Greed. Neglect, and Inhumane Treat-ment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry, Eisman warned of USDA's coming Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) inspection system, which would dispense with individual carcass inspection and substitute microbial testing to determine the general level of cleanliness at each slaughterhouse.


Under this system each plant would be responsible for assessing the likeliest sources of contamination on their production lines and instituting measures to prevent infecting the carcasses of slaughtered animals.  As there would be no inspection of individual carcasses, there would be no way of preventing those with fecal contamination, cancers and infected lesions from being cut up and sold to the public.


This new inspection system was probably suggested by the fact that production lines have speeded up to such a degree that there is not really time to perform individual inspections.


Delmer Jones, a USDA meat inspector for 41 years, said that inspectors were looking at 13 chickens a minute when he started compared to 91 a minute today with three inspectors, presumably allowing about two seconds per carcass, but only if all three inspectors were on the line at once.  Many other inspectors have complained that the speed of production lines permits only a fleeting visual inspection as the carcasses whiz past their stations.


The fastest production lines also make it harder for employees to remove defective parts, making it more likely that they will wind up in the plastic-wrapped packages of hamburger sold to consumers.


The increased speed also makes it harder for employees in charge of stunning to do their job properly.  The Humane Farming Association has been running full-page ads featuring the agonized eye of a cow, still alive after having his legs cut off and skin removed as far as his head.


The increased speed also takes a toll on workers who suffer from injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome caused by repetitive motion to say nothing of kicks from struggling animals and serious knife wounds as they strive to perform their jobs.  It's not surprising that meat processing is one of the most hazardous occupations around.


The HACCP system has been in effect for almost a year in pilot programs in 24 slaughter plants.  USDA is preparing to extend  it nationwide.  The agency benefits from the system because it involves fewer of their employees leaving them free to work on other projects. 


When the USDA first announced the new system, as an improvement on the current  whiz-by visual inspection, it also announced that it was hiring 100 additional meat inspectors without mentioning that it had previously eliminated 1400 meat inspection positions.


At a public hearing on the pilot program, Karen Henderson , one of USDA's field operations employees, admitted that defective carcasses are being approved for human consumption.  "There's no system that we are aware of that is capable of removing every defect from the process," she said.


Felicia Nestor, director of the citizens' group Government Accountability Project, testified that "a lot of diseased animals are going out" and that chickens had higher levels of fecal contamination than under individual carcass inspection as required by a 1959 federal law.


The slaughter plants seem to be in favor of the new system and are pressuring USDA to remove federal inspectors and let them do their own inspecting with employees who would be in danger of losing their jobs if they failed to comply with management directives.


Lance Gay, Scripps Howard News, July 14, 2000, Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisman


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Autumn 2000

The Civil Abolitionist

Autumn 2000