USDA's Reckless Plan to Privatize Food Safety

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My friend Jim, a farmer, jokes about bringing a bowl of manure and a spoon to the farmers' markets where he sells his beef. "My beef has no manure in it, but you can add some," he'd like to tell his customers.

I'm sure you'd pass on manure as a condiment. But unless you're a vegetarian or you slaughter your own meat, you may have eaten it. And if the USDA moves forward with its plan to make a pilot program for meat inspection more widespread, this problem can only get worse.

Manure isn't supposed to wind up on your dinner table. It's a major risk factor for E. coli and other foodborne pathogens. And, when the animals are alive, meat and poop don't come in contact. It's only in the processing plant where the contamination can take place.

Since the days of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle -- a 1906 novel that brought the abysmal conditions in slaughterhouses to light -- some things haven't changed in the meatpacking industry. Companies increase profits by speeding up their operations. Once the animals enter, each worker performs one step in the process of turning the creatures into various cuts of meat, packaging them, and shipping them out. The faster this happens, the more animals the workers process, the more money the company makes.

Unfortunately, the faster the workers go, the more mistakes they make. They work quickly, often with sharp knives or next to dangerous machines. One terrible mistake can result in a lost finger or limb. More often, workers suffer from injuries related to repeating the same motions, over and over. Severe tendinitis is common.

Breakneck line speeds can result in inadvertent animal cruelty as well. A dozen years ago, The Washington Post described the problems in an article tellingly titled, "They Die Piece by Piece."

As slaughterhouse workers do their best to fly through their work, one animal after another, their mistakes sometimes result in "fecal contamination." In simple language, that means poop gets in the meat. This can happen when manure on an animal's hide gets into the meat, or when the animal is gutted and the contents of its intestines make a mess.

USDA regulations and inspectors are supposed to prevent this problem. The government limits line speeds so that plants can't push for more profits at the expense of worker and food safety. And it stations inspectors in slaughterhouses to make sure sick animals don't become part of the food supply.

That might change. Under the pilot program used in five hog processing plants for over a decade, the government reduced the number of USDA inspectors. The companies hired some of its own inspectors to replace the USDA ones. And line speeds increased by 20 percent.

The result? The company's own inspectors were more reluctant or slower to stop the lines when they spotted problems, The Washington Post observed in a new report. That means more poop in the meat. Three of the five plants using this system are among the top 10 worst in the nation for health and safety violations.

This lousy system results in increased profits for companies, decreased costs for the USDA (since it employs fewer inspectors), and less food safety for American consumers.

So what's our government going to do about this?

Despite the poor track record, the small number of plants involved, and concerns expressed by inspectors and the government's General Accountability Office, the USDA's on the verge of expanding that same failed pilot program to every pork plant in the nation. It's also scaling up a similarly flawed poultry inspection pilot program.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this plan stinks. We have enough problems with foodborne illness already without making it worse.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog "La Vida Locavore" and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. She is a PRWatch guest contributor. This article was originally published by OtherWords.