Cattle Inspections Thwarted
Slaughterhouse rules are easily
sidestepped, according to USDA.
An agency audit warns of a health threat.
VICTORIA KIM / Los Angeles Times 20feb2008
A security guard watches over empty pens at Hallmark/Westland, where ailing cattle were slaughtered.
Photo: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times
Slaughterhouse workers watch every move of federal inspectors. They know when they take bathroom breaks. They use the radio to alert one another to the inspector's every step. They even assign the pretty talkative woman to work next to the inspector to distract him from his mission to safeguard the nation's food supply.
That cat-and-mouse game is portrayed by past and current inspectors, lawmakers and an audit report that say the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service is easy to bypass and was failing to screen potentially sick cattle long before this week's beef recall, the largest in U.S. history.
A 2006 audit [PDF 5.87MB at USDA website] reviewed 12 slaughterhouses and showed that, despite federal regulations banning all cattle that cannot walk from the human food supply, 29 so-called downer animals were slaughtered. Of those, 20 had no documented physical injury that would demonstrate that they were not diseased, according to the report by the USDA's office of inspector general.
"Should serious animal diseases be detected in the United States, USDA's ability to quickly determine and trace the source of infections to prevent the spread of the disease could be impaired," the audit report says.
Shortcomings in the system have come under harsh light in the wake of the recall of 143 million pounds of beef from a Chino slaughterhouse, where an undercover investigator for the Humane Society of the United States chronicled downer cattle being forced into the slaughter line.
Authorities said the health risk for the public was minimal and that most of the recalled meat may already have been consumed.
The federal Government Accountability Office launched investigations Tuesday into the USDA's oversight of food purchased for federal programs, including school lunches, after numerous lawmakers expressed outrage that weak dairy cattle were slaughtered at Hallmark/Westland, a major supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program.
One USDA inspector, who asked not to be named because he is employed by the Inspection Service, said the agency did not have the adequate staff and resources to enforce multiple regulations on meat production given workers' efforts to dodge oversight.
"They know where I'm at. if I'm headed to the plant, they've got the radios to say, 'This guy's headed out to the pens,' " he said.
Slaughterhouse employees often struck up conversations with inspectors to keep them from going to parts of the plant where workers were doing something against regulation, the inspector said. At Hallmark/Westland, five on-site inspectors oversaw around 100 employees.
But with limited staff, monitoring the workers' treatment of animals often took a back seat to inspecting the carcasses of cattle after slaughter.
"If you look on paper, [the inspections are] getting done, but we're not given the ability to do the zero-tolerance audits," said the inspector, who has worked for the USDA for more than 15 years.
At one point last year, seven of the 24 inspection positions at a large Midwestern slaughterhouse were vacant, said the inspector, adding that staff shortages began about three years ago. With the limited number of personnel, inspectors are routinely outwitted by slaughterhouse workers, he said.
Last year, 9% of inspector positions nationwide were vacant, according to Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the USDA's inspection service. In the district that includes Hallmark/Westland Meat, the average vacancy rate was 12%, said Stan Painter, president of the inspector's union. Eamich said that the vacancy rate is low compared with previous years and that the agency is recruiting aggressively to fill the vacancies.
Slaughterhouses have three types of federal inspectors: veterinarians, slaughter-line inspectors and floor inspectors. Veterinarians screen the cattle for animals unfit for slaughter. Slaughter-line inspectors observe the dead carcasses for signs of disease and remove such high-risk materials as the brain and spinal cord, which can lead to contamination from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Floor inspectors monitor humane handling and ensure that the practices shown in the Humane Society video, such as ramming into a cow with a fork lift, don't occur.
But when staffing levels run low, floor inspectors are often pulled off their jobs to monitor the slaughter line, leaving the pen areas unguarded.
"If I'm tied on the slaughter line, the company can basically run amok," the inspector said.
Dean Cliver, a food safety expert and advisor to the USDA, said authorities need to rethink how meat inspections are conducted.
"Both laws and regulations are predicated on an adversarial 'gotcha' relationship," said Cliver, professor emeritus of food safety at UC Davis. "Some kind of a teaching relationship is what you need. You ought to be doing a better job of explaining what is wrong and how to do it right."
Meat industry representatives said the $133-billion processing and packing industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the country and has made numerous changes in how animals are treated.
"Obviously we had a system failure here," said American Meat Institute spokeswoman Janet Riley. "However, we will not accept it as a poster child for our industry. It's absolutely not how we operate."
The USDA audit found that the inspection service was limited in its ability to enforce regulations safeguarding against mad cow disease, which is spread from brain tissue. The USDA's ban on downer cattle was triggered by the discovery of an animal in Washington state that tested positive for mad cow disease.
The audit also found that inspectors kept incomplete records of processors and related businesses, making it difficult to track down affected foods in the case of an outbreak. Nearly three weeks after school districts were told to stop using ground beef from Hallmark/Westland, USDA officials said they had yet to identify all the school districts that received the meat.
Cliver said authorities were laying most of the blame on the company when they should be reviewing the agency's inspection process.
"The lessons learned from this will go right by the USDA, and the company will go bankrupt," he said.
In a conference call Tuesday with reporters, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the Agriculture-FDA appropriations subcommittee and George Miller (D-Martinez) said the USDA has long been riven by its dual roles as a promoter and regulator of the agriculture industry.
"The public health becomes an adjunct to promoting the product," DeLauro said.
See related article below.
Total Specified Risk Materials (SRM) Noncompliance Record (NR) and Head Slaughtered
From 2006 USDA Audit
[p.73 of PDF 5.87MB at USDA website]
JESSE A. HAMILTON / Hartford Courant 21feb2008
WASHINGTON — In the wake of the largest recall of meat in U.S. history, Rep. Rosa DeLauro is again asserting her opinion that the long list of government food-safety agencies — what she calls a "collapsed food-safety system" — should be combined into one.
The Connecticut Democrat, chairwoman of the House subcommittee that controls the budget for the Department of Agriculture, said she hopes that a March 5 hearing will bring more attention to problems with food safety and that a sustained public outcry might finally help her proposal get traction.
The hearing is the annual budget review for the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. DeLauro intends to question the service about its failure to note problems at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. of California uncovered by the Humane Society of the United States.
More than 143 million pounds of frozen meat distributed by the company had to be recalled after revelations that Westland/Hallmark, a major supplier of meat to the national school lunch program, had slaughtered potentially sick cows against safety regulations.
A letter DeLauro wrote this week to Richard Raymond, USDA undersecretary for food safety, asked for answers to 10 questions. Basically, she said, "What did they know, and when did they know it?"
DeLauro's proposal to solve the "critical condition" of the system is one for which she has long argued. Years after its initial introduction, she finally wants action on her Safe Food Act — legislation that would establish a new federal department for food safety, combining the responsibilities of 15 current agencies into one "whose only focus is dealing with protecting food."
The USDA has a dual identity, trying to champion and maintain the meat and dairy industry while also trying to regulate it. "The one mission gets in the way of the other, and my own view is that public health has taken the short end of the stick," DeLauro said.
And at the Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over 80 percent of the country's food supply, its own advisory board said late last year that the agency "suffers from serious scientific deficiencies and is not positioned to meet current or emerging regulatory responsibilities." DeLauro added that it tends to focus most of its energy on the regulation of the drug industry.
This makes DeLauro doubt that any portion of the food-safety system is worth renovating. "It's not fixable," she said.
Those who disagree with her have argued that a new bureaucracy isn't the answer and that Congress should fund the existing inspection programs more if it wants a better result.
So far, the Bush administration hasn't supported her idea of a single agency. Nor has the food industry, DeLauro said. But she hopes that attention to the Hallmark/Westland situation and its potential threat to school lunches will help push Congress toward her bill.
"You can't put it aside any longer," she said.