Lack of Federal Inspection Endangers Food Safety

Forty years ago, when I was a kid, I worked in a plant that processed blocks of frozen fish into fish sticks. There was a USDA inspector on site every day who routinely tested samples from every batch of fish we processed, and at least once a week he would shut down one of the lines because a lot was either contaminated or spoiled. The company – no longer in business – was based in Texas. It bought fish caught by commercial Gulf fishing boats, cleaned and then froze the catch at its plant in Brownsville, and shipped it north in refrigerated trucks that were very poorly maintained. Fairly often the refrigeration units would break down, the load would defrost, sit in the truck until the driver could get an OK to have it fixed (which could take as long as three days), and then be refrozen.

The company insisted on processing this spoiled fish because throwing it out meant losing money, and only the intervention of the inspector stopped them. There were regular shouting matches on the floor between the inspector and managers whose jobs were on the line, and the inspector usually had to threaten to shut down the whole plant before the plant manager would finally agree to comply with the law and throw out the spoiled product.

So when, ten years later, Ronald Reagan insisted that there was too much regulation of the food industry and that it was silly to think a corporation would allow its customers to be poisoned, I was appalled. I knew better. I?d seen and heard those arguments and been myself pressured by line supervisors not to say anything to the inspector when I complained that the fish blocks I was cutting up smelled terrible and were obviously spoiled, or that they were loaded with sticks, rocks, and dead insects. I learned then, from the inside, that corporate America didn?t give a damn about anything but $$$ and would poison us all if not poisoning us meant lower profits in the next quarter.

But Reagan, as it turned out, talked a bigger game than he actually played and didn?t follow through on his threats to eliminate food inspection (though he did oversee the dumping of a pile of regulations in other areas). What he did do was sell the American public on the idea of de-regulation, paving the way for the cuts in watchdog agencies like the USDA, the FDA, OSHA, and the Ag Dept that would follow for the next 25 years, culminating in skimpy Bush-budgets that would eventually cut funds for more than half the inspector positions that remained by then.

The results were predictable, and we?ve been seeing them for years. From regular outbreaks of e coli epidemics to scattered deaths from botulism and salmonella that are double (or more) what they used to be, all of it stems from food stock that was contaminated during processing and never should have been sold in the first place. Last year when hundreds of people got sick from contaminated spinach, the media ran around like flustered 5-yr-olds, smacking their foreheads and wailing that it was all a ?mystery? (actual word used by an ABC correspondent) and nobody could figure out what went wrong.

The latest e coli outbreak from hamburger sold at Wal-Mart appears, finally, to have goosed the news media to do some actual investigation and guess what they found? The beef was contaminated because the company that processed it, left to itself by the Bush policy of ?volunteer compliance?, simply stopped bothering to test it so often because frequent testing was too expensive.

Over the summer, as Americans fired up their grills, the Topps Meat factory here scrambled to produce thousands of frozen hamburger patties for Wal-Mart and other customers, putting intense pressure on workers.

As output rose, federal regulators said in interviews, the company was neglecting critical safeguards meant to protect consumers. Three big batches of hamburger contaminated with a potentially deadly germ emerged from the plant, making at least 40 people sick and prompting the second-largest beef recall in history.

***

In the case of Topps, the government has determined that the company reduced its testing of ground beef and neglected other safety measures in the months before the recall.

The Topps case is the most serious of 16 recalls this year involving E. coli contamination of beef. That is a sharp increase from 2005 and 2006, and the resurgence of the pathogen raises questions about whether the Agriculture Department has given the meat industry too much leeway to police itself.

?We?re beginning to feel that the 2002 guidelines have not been enacted to the maximum,? Dr. Richard A. Raymond, the Agriculture Department?s under secretary for food safety, said in an interview in Washington.

***

Topps cut its microbial testing on finished ground beef from once a month to three times a year, a level the department considers inadequate.

Federal investigators said they had recently learned that the company failed to require adequate testing on the raw beef it bought from its domestic suppliers, and it sometimes mixed tested and untested meat in its grinding machines.

The Agriculture Department acknowledged that its safety inspectors, who were in the Topps plant for an hour or two each day, never cited the company for these problems.

(emphasis added)

There is no ?mystery? about this and never has been. The AD inspectors were ?in the Topps plant for an hour or two each day? only because Topps had already been involved with the poisoning of an 8-yr-old girl two years before. And even given that background, Bush?s AD didn?t see fit to write up the company for inadequate testing, allowing thousands of pounds of potentially contaminated meat to be passed along to consumers rather than embarrass the corporation and cost it money.

You can see the difference between my 60?s USDA inspector and the Bush inspectors of today. One did his job as it was meant be done, the other only pretended to do its job, turning its back to violations even though they endangered our safety. Extrapolate this example to the rest of the food industry and imagine what must be going on in all the plants the AD and USDA can?t track because they don?t have enough inspectors (and the ones they do have are apparently under orders not to interfere with the companies they?re supposed to be over-seeing) and what you have isn?t a pretty picture.

The fact is that our food is no longer safe thanks to the Bush Administration?s ?voluntary compliance? policies and its determination to protect profits rather than people. The same is true of our water and our air. Bush and the GOP have fought time and again – successfully – to protect polluters with weak regulations and sparse inspections.

They?re not the ones who will pay the price for this. We are.

2 Responses to “Lack of Federal Inspection Endangers Food Safety”

  1. And isn’t this the problem? The government inspectors kept open a company whose practices would have resulted in them being shut down almost immediately in a free market. In a free market, only those who maintained their trucks and didn’t try to “save money” by selling rotten fish would have remained in business. Instead, the government ensures that crooks stay in business. Great plan!

  2. Great post and it is nice to see this problem written about from a human perspective. Inspections are decreasing as food safety risks go up … it is a horrible problem. Of course, there is also the question of whose inspectors should be in which location:

    http://www.limitededitionfoods.com/why-your-pizza-is-topped-with-political-controversy/

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