WASHINGTON - The Agriculture Department sparred Tuesday with representatives of its meat inspectors over whether a new system for overseeing packing plants has improved the safety of beef, pork and poultry.
Union representatives, who have long criticized the 4-year-old science-based system, said it has given companies too much power to police themselves and allowed unsafe meat to reach American households.
"It is not working and shows no sign of working in the future," said Arthur Hughes, a spokesman for the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals.
The new inspection system, supported by major consumer groups, requires companies to identify potential hazards in slaughterhouses and processing plants and implement controls for food-borne pathogens.
Previously, companies relied on USDA inspectors to find contaminated meat by poking and sniffing it. The inspectors' jobs now are to ensure that the plants follow their sanitation plans and to do some microbial testing.
"There is no question" that meat is safer under the new system, said Thomas Billy, administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "We have seen remarkable improvement, and we expect that to continue."
A report released in June by USDA's inspector general agreed that meat is safer but said Billy's agency had "reduced its oversight beyond what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer."
The inspector general said plants should be required to do more testing of meat, and USDA's enforcement actions are inconsistent and often ineffective in preventing repeat violations of federal safety standards.
Two advocacy groups that support the position of the inspectors' union, the Government Accountability Project and Public Citizen, released results of a survey that was distributed by union leaders to about 2,340 of the 3,850 inspectors trained to oversee the new system.
Of those queried, 451 inspectors responded, and 210 reported instances when they had not taken "direct action" after spotting contamination such as feces on carcasses, something they would have done under the old system. Inspectors also said they were threatened with lawsuits by processors.
Some inspectors also said that while they support the system in concept, they don't think USDA has implemented it properly.
"The meat industry has been able to call the shots because of their enormous political clout," said Wenonah Hauter of Public Citizen, a group founded by Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
Billy attributed the complaints to disgruntled inspectors but said the survey results "indicate we need to provide further training and education for our employees."