US meat safety at a crossroads

Concerns have been raised over changes to US meat inspection
Concerns have been raised over changes to US meat inspection

Related tags New zealand Livestock Beef Pork

US meat safety is in a state of upheaval after some unsettling revelations regarding new procedures employed in a highly contentious pilot programme, which the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in favour of adopting.

Meat consumption is in steady decline and a near stagnant economy means that government resources are tighter than ever, thus providing forceful impetus for change. However, consumer health is at stake, and so the last word on the matter has not yet been spoken.

Is it about food safety or money?

Far from being a recent initiative, the proposed revision of the protocol employed by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is actually a long suffering project which kicked off 15 years ago, debuting in five large US hog plants. USDA hopes to complete the evaluation of the pork pilot programme by spring 2014, and the chicken and turkey pilot later this year.

The official objective was to improve food safety as well as efficiency. However, when looking at the two core strategies by which this was meant to be achieved, namely by reducing USDA inspectors and increasing the speed of meat plant production lines, the real reason for the undertaking is crystal clear. For both the industry and USDA, this is about money.

The economic downturn has curbed fresh meat consumption in the US quite considerably. In the last five years, fresh meat consumption declined by 6% according to Euromonitor International. Beef and veal plummeted by 14% and pork by 7%. Only poultry, the cheapest kind of meat, achieved a 1.7% gain. In the last year of the review period, however, in 2012, poultry volumes declined by 3% on the previous year.

No wonder the industry is bent on cutting costs so it can drive prices for the end consumer down further, while the government is trying to compensate for shrinking tax revenues.

Unappetising reading

Recent press reports investigating the impact of these cost saving measures, including increasing line speeds by as much as 20%, have been nothing short of horrifying. An article published by the Washington Post on 8 September said that safety records at three of the (pork) pilot plants were worse compared to hundreds of other plants where the traditional system of lower throughput rates and supervised by a full set of government inspectors was in operation.

The biggest issue is faecal matter contamination. Faster lines not only make it more difficult for workers to spot faeces adhering carcases, but it also leaves much less time for trimming off contaminated parts and sterilising the meat and knives. Faecal matter is a source of the dreaded E coli, as well as many other dangerous pathogens.

An USDA inspector working in one of the plants delivered a quote to the Washington Post which has spread like wildfire through the trade press: “We are no longer in charge of safety. That’s what the public needs to know”.

It is well known that production and food safety protocol changes geared towards boosting efficiency by increasing line speeds are causing significant problems at meat plants in other countries, such as neighbouring Canada and Australasia. Imports from Australia and Canada have been met with frequent rejections at US entry ports due to contamination.

The Washington Post article also mentions that New Zealand government inspectors had warned that New Zealand plants with high line speeds relying on private company inspectors produced, at times, “meat with tremendous amounts of faecal matter attached to the carcasses, and in the form of chunks, rather than small bits”​. USDA gave New Zealand approval to export meat to the US in 2011.

The tussle is not yet over

One reason why the issue flared up in September was the publication of a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which proved far from a glowing endorsement of USDA’s continued intentions to turn the piloted procedures into the new standard.

The document contained a barrage of criticism, including that USDA had only taken snapshots of the masses of data generated over 15 years, failing to thoroughly evaluate the performance of these pilots. In addition, the training of plant personnel in charge of safety had not been adequately standardised and the proposed line speeds were not just a danger to food safety but also to the health of plant employees.

Following on from the furore, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Safe Meat and Poultry Act on 13 September, geared towards “decreasing pathogens, protecting whistleblowers and improve the customer notification process”.​ Whether this piece of legislation can actually protect US consumers from the worst excesses of USDA and the meat industry’s efficiency drive remains to be seen.

Related topics Meat

Related news

Follow us


View more