USDA needs to improve slaughter inspection: report

The U. S. meat inspection system has flaws that may create food safety risks, although the problems that forced a California packer to conduct the largest meat recall ever are not widespread, according to a federal review.

The audit by USDA’s inspector general came after a videotape released Jan. 30 showed Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. workers using abusive techniques to force sick and injured cattle into the slaughterhouse so they could be processed into food. The video led to the recall of 143 million pounds of meat in February.

In its 97-page report, the inspector general found there was no evidence of inhumane handling at 10 other slaughter establishments similar to Hallmark.

Efforts by Hallmark to bypass required inspection procedures by USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service were “deliberate” and were not evidence of “a systemic failure” of USDA’s inspection process, the report said.

Still, while the problems are not widespread, there are flaws in USDA’s inspection plan. “There is an inherent vulnerability that humane handling violations can occur and not be detected by FSIS inspectors,” the inspector general said in the report. It said inspectors are overworked and spend too little time at too many plants.

U. S. Senate agriculture committee chairman Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said there are serious problems with training and deployment of FSIS employees and use of resources.

“If (FSIS) does not assign a sufficient number of inspectors, supervisors and veterinarians and provide the training they require, we take a gamble with food safety and the humane treatment and slaughter of animals,” he said.

The report said FSIS could not demonstrate that its controls were sufficient to detect if companies fail to comply with the removal, segregation and disposition of so-called specified risk material (SRM). The potentially infected tissue is believed to be a main way to spread mad cow disease.

The inspector general issued 25 recommendations including that FSIS strengthen management controls and improve oversight of its inspection staff. The agency also needed to reassess the inhumane handling risks at plants.

USDA spokesman Keith Williams said the department agreed with all 25 recommendations, which are in place or being implemented.

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