Consumer advocates have long contended that the nation’s meat-inspection system hasn’t advanced much beyond the “poke and sniff” method of a century ago. Now there are alarming accusations that federal officials have been lax about enforcing updated testing standards imposed on the industry a decade ago.
Eight people died and 54 became ill in Northeast states earlier this year after eating food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. The source of the outbreak hasn’t been determined, but strains of the bacteria were found at two processing companies.
One of the companies, Wampler Foods, ordered the recall of 27.4 million pounds of cooked turkey and chicken this fall. It was the largest recall of meat in U.S. history.
Vincent Erthal, a federal meat inspector who worked at a Wampler’s plant in Franconia, Pa., told The New York Times recently that he warned superiors at the Agriculture Department about unsanitary conditions at the plant last year. They chose not to respond, he said.
Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who serves on the House Committee on Government Reform, has called for an investigation into Erthal’s claims, and into concerns that the plant was given extraordinary warnings about government tests.
Plants are typically notified the evening before or the morning of tests. But Erthal told Waxman’s staff that the Wampler plant sometimes got enough notification to enable it to shut down and clean up several hours in advance of testing.
Both Wampler and the Agriculture Department deny any breakdown in procedures. Wampler officials point out that Listeria was not found in any of the recalled meat and that corrective action was quickly taken to clean up areas where contamination was found.
In response to the Listeria problem, the Agriculture Department has increased the number of company-conducted test results that processing plants must supply to inspectors. Federal officials said the department will take over testing in any plants that do not voluntarily comply.
As we noted recently, that’s a step forward. But Waxman and others on Capitol Hill should press this issue further and determine whether the government is giving the industry too much leeway in the inspection process.
Americans expect their food to be safe, and they expect the government to make an aggressive effort to ensure that it is.