Food & Agriculture

Statement on Settlement Of Nebraska Beef Case and Funding Food Safety with User Fees

“Last week started with good news for consumers. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced a $42 million increase in the food safety budget for fiscal year 2004. It ended disastrously, when we learned that, in fact, there is likely to be less money spent on meat inspection in the future.

“The Bush Administration has put tax cuts for millionaires ahead of safe food for consumers. It’s helping to pay for the tax cut with a ‘fee for service’ system for inspection. Further, on Friday the Agriculture Department settled the Nebraska Beef case, allowing an Omaha slaughterhouse to remain open despite a string of citations for safety and sanitation violations. USDA’s lawyers appear to agree with Nebraska Beef that the Department can’t legally enforce its new inspection system.

“The much ballyhooed increases in food safety funding are a fraud. The Bush Administration’s 2004 budget counts on user fees paid by industry to support a major portion of the meat inspection budget-far more than the announced increases. Consumer groups have always opposed ‘fee for service’ inspection. It’s what it sounds like, a program to serve the needs of industry, not protect human health. Inspectors should protect public health the same way police officers protect public safety. USDA has no legal authority to impose fees for inspection services and Congress has rejected this approach at least six times over 20 years. In the end, the Administration’s obsession with cutting millionaire’s taxes will result in less money for meat inspection next year.

“The Agriculture Department has a long history of being sympathetic with the meat industry. If the Bush Administration essentially ‘privatizes’ meat inspection by putting it on a fee for service basis, the Department is even more likely to put the interests of meat companies ahead of human health. Consumers will not benefit from inspectors viewing the owners of meat plants as the source of their paychecks.

“USDA’s actions in the Nebraska Beef case are equally ominous. It has agreed to allow the slaughterhouse to remain open after Nebraska Beef argued in court that the Agriculture Department has no authority to enforce either HACCP-its modernized inspection system-or standard sanitary operating procedures. The company had a stack of violations for fecal contamination, dirty plant conditions, and condensation dripping onto surfaces where meat is prepared. Twice last year, in September and December, the Department suspended inspection at the slaughterhouse only to hold the suspensions in abeyance based on promises from Nebraska Beef that the problems would be resolved. But the company was either unable or unwilling to meet its responsibility to produce clean safe meat. Why should consumers believe that it will do so now?

“Nebraska Beef’s lawyers argued that closing the plant would be bad economics, harming cattlemen who sold livestock to the company, and the owners of the plant. They simply rejected the argument that filthy conditions that threaten to generate foodborne disease are a reason to stop production. USDA’s settlement is a capitulation to the demands of a substandard plant. USDA clearly feared the court would rule in Nebraska Beef’s favor and return government inspectors to the ‘poke and sniff’ system designed a hundred years ago. The settlement suggests the Agriculture Department has no authority to close any plant based on public health considerations. It opens the door to endless negotiations when federal inspectors find plants with safety problems. Now every plant in the nation knows that, for practical purposes, USDA can’t shut them down for food safety violations. Congress must act to change that.

So, this week, the Food Safety and Inspection Service suddenly has less money and less authority to protect the public from unsafe meat and poultry. The Bush Administration has effectively cut its budget and, at the same time, seems content to see its authority eviscerated. The Administration has put human health at end of the food chain. It allowed a filthy meat plant to keep operating and put a tax cut for millionaires ahead of human health by proposing to privatize meat and poultry inspection.”