USDA Food Inspector Calls Job "Just A Joke"

An article in the Chicago Tribune takes yet another look at our broken food safety system, declaring that a USDA Food Inspector’s job is now less about inspecting meat and more about inspecting paperwork.

After the Jack in the Box case, the USDA required each meat plant to adopt a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan. The plans let companies design their own food safety measures, usually around the need to process beef quickly.

“HACCP is an internationally recognized, prevention-based food safety program,” Eamich said. “Inspection personnel have full authority to take immediate action to prevent the entry of adulterated products into commerce.”

The hope was that meatpacking plants would adopt better practices. But inspectors today say their jobs have been reduced to monitoring a company’s hazard analysis plan, instead of enforcing USDA’s own inspection regulations.

“They [meatpacking companies] write their own plan,” said one inspector, who asked to remain anonymous. “They write everything for themselves. We’re ‘monitoring’ that now. It’s just a joke. We mostly check paper now. You can put anything you want on paper.”

That’s comforting.

Food inspectors overwhelmed [Chicago Tribune]
(Photo:Michael Berch)

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  1. Takkun says:

    This makes me feel a lot better about being a vegetarian.

    It also reminds me of The Jungle .

  2. Beerad says:

    Thanks, meatpacking industry! The taste of e. coli has never been so cheap yet delicious, and now with more BSE than ever before!

  3. Anonymous says:

    @Takkun: I’d slow down there. There have been several recent high profile cases of vegetables contaminated with nasty stuff.

    Veggies are probably overall safer but they are hardly exempt from the problems.

  4. MountainRooster says:

    @Takkun: Don’t feel too much better. USDA still has quite a bit to do with vegatables… and by that I mean, your veggies could kill you just as easily. At least meat is generally cooked lessening ecoli and salmonella risks, but good luck with that raw spinach.

  5. pkrieger says:

    @Beerad: the incidence of BSE has dropped dramatically globally since it’s discovery, so fear mongering is uncalled for. Not to mention that there have only been 200 proven cases of bovine variant CJD (that approx 20 a year – more people get eatten by sharks in a year) and don’t talk to me about Alzheimers until there is a compelling study that provides a link between it and BSE.

    HACCP protocols have also dropped the incidence of e.coli infections since their inception, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. The problem isn’t that they don’t work – the problem is that the industry has been consolidated to such a degree that when there are mistakes, they are much worse. 5 Meat Packing companies harvest 80-90% of the cattle. E.coli is not going away, and you can’t treat it easily with a vaccine, so we need to minimize risk. I don’t know the best way to do that, but I do know that it isn’t fair to scapegoat HACCP.

  6. meneye says:

    this is discouraging, but compared to other countries *cough* our food is still extremely safe

  7. snwbrder0721 says:

    @Takkun @daren666 @mountainrooster

    Wasn’t the recent raw spinach contamination caused by runoff from a nearby cattle operation?
    If it wasn’t for livestock operations how many raw veggie contaminations would we have?

    I agree, veggies aren’t inherently safer than beef, but at least I know that they don’t grind up random parts of lettuce plants to make “ground salad”. A little apple cider vinegar can go a long way in rinsing off the pesticides and other “value added” bonuses on most veggies.

    Side rant: when will we, as a country, get down to the business of protecting ourselves by improving our food supply, infrastructure, and education? What will it take for America to wake up?

    Perhaps a truck driver is unable to read a warning instructing him how to cook his ground beef which therefore causes him to get sick while driving which distracts him enough to hit a giant pothole on an unmaintained road causing him to roll his truck filled with lead painted toys which in turn hits several school buses filled with innocent children and the disabled.
    That might wake us up, but probably not.

  8. bohemian says:

    Getting meat from my friends that hunt more than they can possibly eat is starting to sound more like a sound food supply.

  9. SkyeBlue says:

    It seems to me that the main objective of every government group that is supposed to be watching out for our safety is to look out for the business interests of the companies they are supposed to be policing to make sure that nothing impedes on the bribes they are receving from said companies and the companies lobbyists.

  10. timmus says:

    Bohemian: Prion disease found lurking in deer muscle. Not surprisingly, no one is bothering to investigate how widespread that is, either.

  11. Alvis says:

    Who cares? I cook my food.

  12. timmus says:

    I do wonder whether it’s possible to start up a consumers’ union type system, basically an association of factories banding together under the same umbrella that has total transparency & accountability (i.e. anyone is welcome to come inspect the factory and look in the files) and shares the same goals: i.e. walking the walk of a safe food supply (and with meat packing plants, humane treatment). Obviously if goverment is being bought off left and right then it’s up to consumers to protect themselves. Voting with one’s wallet isn’t doing squat.

  13. rmz says:

    @snwbrder0721: So, let’s see. In your post, you seem to be complaining about:

    * Waste runoff
    * Livestock operations
    * Ground meat
    * Pesticides
    * Food supply
    * Infrastructure
    * Education
    * America in general

    Just trying to throw all of those issues at the wall and see what sticks? :D

  14. mconfoy says:

    @snwbrder0721: No, more than likely it was the production plant itself. That’s why one of the plants that has not had problems wants safety standards to match what they do, which has helped their business now, but regulation saves lives.

    @pkrieger:
    As far as CID, we shall see in 10 years or so. We don’t even know the extent of the issue in the UK yet, so to say its down here is probably true, but just a guess. How bad is the problem? No one really knows.

    The fact is, the FDA fails us more when it comes to imported sea food, especially shell fish. Lots and lots of people get sick from it, most never knowing it was the seafood, and few actually dying. Never the less, it should not be happening. Bush has done to the FDA what he did to FEMA, CPC, EPA, etc….

  15. IRSistherootofallevil says:

    Here’s my inspection plan….take 250 pounds of meat from each meat processing plant in a region (say, CA or the Southeast or whatever). Put it all in a vat. If any foodborne illnesses are found (ecoli, SARS, whatever) the whole batch is thrown away. That means EVERY PIECE OF MEAT FROM THE ENTIRE REGION. The meat plants have a week to recall ALL the meat coming from the region, it’s ALL thrown away, and ALL meat plants from that region are cleaned and sterilized from floor to ceiling. And if this procedure isn’t followed, the offenders will pay a heavy fine. These inspections happen monthly.

    THAT’S how you keep our food supply safe. Make it too expensive NOT to make it safe.

  16. IRSistherootofallevil says:

    If there are six or more violations from a particular region, ALL meat plants from the region will be shut down, during which time the plants will be THOROUGHLY audited for compliance. Again, heavy fines follow for any violations, and this happens for every other subsequent violation.

    12 violations or more, the meat plant’s permit is pulled for 24 months. 15 violations or more, the permit’s pulled FOR LIFE.

  17. IRSistherootofallevil says:

    *I meant permanently.

  18. IRSistherootofallevil says:

    On top of that, an FDA agent will randomly visit meat plants and basically show up at the door and be like “Tour. Now. Let’s go.” Any violations found, again, plant is shut down entirely, ALL meat from storage to packaging is thrown out, and the place is sterilized from floor to ceiling.

  19. IRSistherootofallevil says:

    Hows that for scaring those meat plants into keeping our meat safe?

  20. Takkun says:

    @Darren666:

    Yes, I feel better, not completely and entirely safe at all times.

  21. DoctorMD says:

    The FDA, like the rest of the government, is antiquated and irrelevant. They actually impede a healthy food chain. Slaugherhouses MUST have an FDA inspector present at all times (with their own private bathroom), which forces all meat to come through a few large germ factories. People have looked into opening ultra-clean high-end slaugherhouses but cannot due to the FDA regulations.

  22. readerator says:

    The FDA does not monitor the meat industry – that’s the USDA’s turf. The USDA is in charge of all meat, poultry, and dairy.

  23. BigNutty says:

    We are all getting sick or dying from something so what are we all going to do? Nothing. Every time a new scare story comes out I just laugh and wonder how we all survived to this point.

    There will always be people getting sick or dying from this or that, it’s just part of life. You take your chances when you eat beef, vegetables or anything else these days.

  24. pkrieger says:

    @mconfoy: I agree that we will have a better picture of actual cases caused by BSE in several years, due to the giant gulf between infection and symptoms. I do however disagree on blaming Bush for funding issues (which is the root of not having enough inspectors.) Every year the President publishes a budget that then gets revised by the House and Senate, with exception of certain departments and programs whose budgets get huge increases (CHIP), the majority get cut. So if you are upset with funding problems, look to Congress.

  25. pkrieger says:

    @IRSistherootofallevil: I hate to nitpick, but SARS is not a foodborne illness, and most slaughter facilities (if they are following their HACCP protocols – which they probably are) are sterilized nightly. The system isn’t as bad as it is being portrayed. It is already expensive to be unsafe, as evidenced by Topps going belly up. It doensn’t make sense long term to kill your customers (tobacco industry excluded.) Foodborne illness has gone down in this country dramatically, and these kind of recalls just show how our surveillance and epidemiology system is working. 15 years ago, if it wasn’t caught at the plant, there were no recalls. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we need to look at fixing the current issues – like large bacterial loads entering the system. Find a way to treat the cow before it enters the facility, such as a vaccine or antibiotic (neomycin would work great in this case.) That would also decrese instances of enviromental runoff or infection via fertilizer in vegetables.

  26. freshwater says:

    @pkrieger

    There already is some monitoring of sick livestock. And they aren’t
    treated. Any sick or dead livestock which show up at slaughterhouses
    are disposed of separately.

    Not that I’m saying the system works all that well. Most livestock
    are given antibiotics as part of their regular diet, leading to
    resistant bacteria. In the cows and us.

  27. freshwater says:

    And clearly, the slaughterhouses don’t catch every sick cow. Point
    is, sick cows aren’t supposed to be part of the actual food chain.

  28. Trai_Dep says:

    When we’re comparing foreign vs domestic food safety, it’s important to break it down by WHICH country. Europe (a better comparison of what the US is capable of) has MUCH safer food supplies. I eat carpaccio in Italy or France with no fear whatsoever. (Yeah, Britain had well-publicized problems, which shows their warning system works, and they had to address the problems or be ejected from EU markets). Same with Japan. They do it, so can we.

    Unfortunately, the GOP adopts China and Myanmar as regulatory role models.

  29. mammalpants says:

    sounds like they need to go to Bovine University!

  30. pkrieger says:

    @freshwater: The problem is that E.coli O157:H7 doesn’t make cows sick, so we can’t use a process such as visual inspection to cull the carriers. Yes the system needs to be improved, we just need to figure out what is the best way.
    And antibiotic resistance in humans stemming from ab use in antibiotics is very small – less than 5%. And when Europe banned the use of antibiotics as growth promotants (which only accounts for 4.5% of use in animals in the US), the incidence of disease and overall use of antibiotics in animals increased.

  31. MYarms says:

    Why would anyone expect the meatpacking industry to be any different from any other industry? The ultimate goal is to turn out as much product as possible and make huge sums of money. Do you honestly think they care about the health of the end user?

  32. zolielo says:

    The CSI fellows try hard but the system in which they work is not optimal for other reasons not directly related inspecting. Poor guys…