Nation's Food Safety System CollapsingMay 20, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
Many are concerned about the nation's meat inspection system. Given that responsibility for food regulation is spilt among 15 federal agencies, this is no small concern. And, while, almost 12 million cattle nationwide are being prepared for slaughter this year, the nation's meat supply and the agency that oversees it are at issue.
Ranch owner Gary Teague—whose 25,000-acre ranch is home to 20,000 cattle—says, "There are over 800,000 beef producers like myself across the country [that] are working hard every day to ensure that the product we put out there is safe and wholesome." Teague’s ranch is small in comparison to the entire industry, which has an estimated annual value of over $100 billion.
Graphic undercover video taped and released this year by the Humane Society of the United States raised questions about meat processing plant safety after it revealed downed cattle that legally required examination by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) veterinarian before slaughter did not receive required examinations. Downed cattle must be examined prior to slaughter to ensure no cattle sickened with mad cow disease enters the nation’s food supply. Stanley Painter, who was a USDA inspector for 22 years, says the agency, which oversees food safety and inspection, doesn't allow inspectors to enforce regulations and that sometimes plants fix the problems discovered by inspectors; sometimes they don't.
By federal law, there are inspectors at each of the nation's slaughterhouses. Painter, who heads the union representing inspectors, said in some parts of the country, there are 20 percent fewer inspectors than required. The nationwide vacancy figure is about 11 percent. "They are telling us to 'let the system work,' " Painter told CNN. "Which means that if you see a problem, stand back and watch and see what the plant is going to do with it."
Some prominent lawmakers, like Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, believe an independent food inspection agency is needed to protect consumers from food-borne illnesses. "What we have now is a food system that is collapsing," said DeLauro. Jay Truitt—a former top official with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association—disagrees, saying a multi-layered food inspection system works. "It's a great system, and we've done a great job," he said. Nevertheless, the Humane Society videos spurred the largest meat recall in U.S. history, despite the fact that the recall was opposed by the industry.
Serious concerns are being raised over how many former beef industry lobbyists work in high positions at the USDA. Its website, www.usda.gov, lists five key staffers who once worked for the National Cattleman's Beef Association—the industry's most powerful lobbying group. Also, the man responsible for the lobbying arm of the nation's meat packers is listed as a top USDA official.
"Even with my former ties at USDA, I am not of the view that I have any influence with the department," said Patrick Boyle, head of the American Meat Institute. Food safety advocates disagree saying that this meshing increases the lobby’s power. "The fact that they've managed to put some of their former key people in key positions at the USDA makes them very powerful," said Tony Corbo of Food and Water Watch.