Farm Bill Weakens Federal Food Safety Powers

That confidence could be shaken soon if the nation’s meat and poultry industry succeeds in weakening federal oversight of its products. The industry lobbying efforts resulted in several provisions to be included in the 2007 Farm Bill (H.R. 2419) that could end most federal meat and poultry inspection, allowing as many as 81 percent of the nation’s processing plants to switch to more lenient state inspection programs. Such a move would put both consumers and workers at risk. Says AFGE President John Gage:

We view this bill to be a product of massive lobbying efforts by meat producers who are searching for more “understanding” and flexible” enforcement by state inspectors, without regards to public health.

AFGE, along with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Safe Food Coalition, Consumer Federation of America, National Consumers League and Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, has joined forces to oppose the bill. The bill has passed the U.S. House. The Senate will soon consider its version, to which the inspection provisions will be offered as an amendment.

In a letter to senators, Gage notes that 81 percent of meat and poultry processing plants, now under federal rules (4,532 of 5,603), would be allowed to:

..switch from the federal inspection program to the more “agri-business friendly ” state inspection programs. This would mean that a federally inspected plant that is under pressure from a federal inspector to improve its sanitation practices could simply decided to move to the friendlier venue of state inspection. It isn’t surprising that both the American Meat Institute and the National Meat Association, whose members are federally inspected plants, have signed off on the [provisions].

Currently, meat and poultry from plants that are governed by state inspection programs can be sold only within that state, not shipped to other states. The Farm Bill would lift that ban and allow state-inspected meat and poultry to be shipped to stores and restaurants anywhere in the United States.

Several studies have shown that state inspection programs do not match up to the federal inspection regulations and enforcement. A 2006 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) inspector general found several, of what Gage calls, “stomach-turning examples” of state program failures.

In visiting 11 Mississippi plants, USDA investigators found the state allowed facilities to continue to operate despite serious safety deficiencies, including cutting boards heavily contaminated with meat residue from previous days’ operations, soot-like material on swine carcasses in cooler and the lack of monitoring of cooking temperatures that could expose consumers to bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses.

Says UFCW Vice President Michael J. Wilson:

This amendment will weaken America’s food safety net, pure and simple. Anyone who believes state inspection is the same as federal inspection also believes in the Tooth Fairy. In addition, it will encourage thousands of facilities that are currently federally inspected to opt for more “friendly” state inspection. Like a tainted piece of meat, this provision deserves the stamp of rejection.

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