The U.S. Department of Agriculture is dealing with one of the largest meat recalls in history. How is Congress responding? The Senate is considering legislation that would reduce required federal inspections for meat.
The legislation would require only state inspections for meat products that do not cross state lines. State inspection standards are typically more lenient and weaker than federal inspection standards. If passed, the legislation could hamper food safety, specifically for meat products produced in smaller plants.
"I'm not sure the smaller plants are capable of meeting federal standard," Stan Painter told a reporter for The Chicago Tribune last week. Painter is a USDA inspector and an official with the American Federation of Government Employees union, which represents federal meat inspectors.
More relaxed standards for meat inspection are being considered during the recall of 21.7 million pounds of hamburger produced by Topps Meat Co., of Elizabeth, N.J., because of E. coli contamination, the culprit behind most of the USDA's meat recalls. As of last week, 25 illnesses were under investigation because of the tainted meat. So far this year, the USDA has recalled 28 million pounds of ground beef.
If members of Congress insist on imposing more moderate inspection standards during a time that should remind them why stricter quality controls are needed, one can only come to three conclusions: Congress is evil, Congress is lazy, or Congress is stupid - perhaps all three. Criticizing the government shouldn't be this easy.
If politicians insist on imposing themselves into every facet of our public and private lives, the least they could do is appear somewhat competent, or short of that, they could at least pretend to put our safety before interest groups, unions, and lobbyists.
By design, corporations don't care about our health or wellbeing. Such quality controls and safety standards cut into a corporation's profits, the reason it is in business. That's where government is supposed to step in: to ensure that industry doesn't harm consumers for the sake of larger revenue. Government isn't meant to be industry's tag team partner, waiting to be tagged in to help corporations rough us up a little bit more.
Supporters of the proposed bill say the new standards are meant to help small companies who may not be able to afford to live up to federal standards. Those advocates forget that if a company can't meet federal standards, it shouldn't be in business in the first place. Those companies should improve; standards shouldn't decline. While some states already have state inspection standards in place, others do not. If the bill is passed, those states will have to start from scratch, a recipe for disaster … and tainted meat. While some supporters claim that the new state inspection standards will be on par with federal inspection standards, it's hard to imagine a few hundred pounds of contaminated meat not falling through the cracks.
Defenders of the planned bill also ignore the larger issue. Federal inspection standards aren't good enough to begin with. Twenty-eight million pounds of rotten meat has already survived the scrutiny of federal officials this year, not to mention previous recalls in 2002 (19 million pounds of ground beef) and 1997 (25 million pounds). Lighter measures are the last thing we need when the USDA's standards are already too low.
When we don't force our substandard government to sharpen up, we're all dead meat.