Statement of CFA's Carol Tucker Foreman on GAO Report Highlighting Serious Problems in USDA's Meat Inspection System

Washington, D.C.- July 10, 2002: "The Government Accounting Office statement of fact on problems with the implementation of USDA's new meat and poultry inspection system demonstrates once again that the Department allows irresponsible, unfit companies to continue selling meat and poultry to the American people. The draft GAO statement of fact says USDA's implementation is so poor that it raises questions about whether the program is ensuring the safety of the food supply. Neither the meat and poultry companies nor USDA has met its responsibility to protect the American people. Both the industry and the government have put profit ahead of public health.

"GAO supports the validity of charges made by consumer organizations that USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is not requiring plants to take action to control Salmonella contamination of raw meat and poultry. GAO found it is taking FSIS almost a year and a half to ensure plants are meeting the Salmonella standard and that the agency drags its feet in conducting in depth verification reviews. Last December after the US court of Appeals ruled against USDA in the Supreme Beef case, Secretary Veneman and Under Secretary Murano stated that public health would not suffer because, as soon as a plant failed a Salmonella test, the Department would send in an 'in-depth verification team' to find the problem and fix it. But GAO notes that FSIS waits three months after a second Salmonella failure before sending in a team. In one case, the Department waited 339 days.

"After an in-depth verification team does its work and makes recommendations, USDA imposes no time limit by which a plant must make changes in its production. A recalcitrant meat company can delay for years without penalty.

"The GAO report also shows that USDA has not followed through on the pledge made last December by Secretary Veneman to "shut down" plants that don't meet federal regulations under HACCP. GAO reports 'shutting down' frequently means that a plant is cited for a problem and then is immediately allowed to resume production. Penalties are held in abeyance, sometimes for months at a time. GAO examined administrative enforcement cases for 2001 and found that in 60 of 68 plants FSIS discovered a problem and informed a plant it was suspending inspection, which means shutting down production. However, in 95 percent of those cases the suspension was then 'placed in abeyance.' This simply means that USDA noted the problem, stopped inspection for a few hours and then allowed the plant to begin producing again. GAO stated, 'because normal operations have resumed the abeyance may also remove any incentive to take prompt corrective and preventive action.'"