The U.S. Department of Agriculture has permitted hundreds of meat and poultry plants to operate virtually uninterrupted even while federal inspectors file tens of thousands of citations against them for unsanitary conditions and food contamination, department records show.
Cox Newspapers analyzed an Agriculture Department computerized database of meat and poultry inspection records for 1996 and found 138,593 instances in which inspectors said food being prepared in packing plants was “certain” to sicken consumers. The database was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Experts can’t estimate how much contaminated meat and poultry makes its way to America’s dinner tables from these plants. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have long argued that food-borne illness is a far bigger problem than public reports would suggest, and that food processing plants play a major role.
But even a CDC doctor was surprised by the extent of the situation detailed in the Agriculture Department database.
“Heavens,” said Dr. Paul Mead, an epidemiologist at the center in Atlanta, when told by reporters that some plants have been allowed to operate after being cited 1,000 or more times for the most serious of unsanitary conditions.
“The burning question is why is a plant with that many violations … why has the (federal) inspector not been pulled from that plant?” he asked. “And I have no idea.”
Thomas Billy, head of the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Inspection Service, said the high number of violations shows that his inspectors did their job in catching contaminated food before it left the plant.
He dismissed as “speculation” the idea that frequent violators might be shipping contaminated food that inspectors missed.
While most of the nation’s approximately 6,000 processing plants had only a handful of violations, there were 299 that were cited weekly. While Agriculture Department officials can close or curtail operations at plant, they rarely do so, even in the most extraordinary circumstances.
The database showed a poultry plant in Waldron, Ark., operated by Tyson Foods Inc., amassed 1,753 “critical” violations in 1996, the most of any plant in the nation. On some days it averaged one critical violation every two hours.
A “critical” violation is defined by the Agriculture Department as a plant condition that is “certain” to cause contamination of food, which is “certain” to reach consumers, and is “certain to have a detrimental effect upon the consumer.”
Yet the plant never missed a day of production in 1996 because of federal sanctions.
By comparison, the ground beef plant in Nebraska that made headlines last August for its 25 million pound meat recall and for being shut down by an Agriculture Department “swat team” of inspectors, had only 90 critical violations during 1996.
It was difficult to get Tyson’s response to the findings late last week because its chief spokesman, Archibald Schaffer III, a company vice president, said he was “distracted” by his indictment Thursday by the special prosecutor investigating illegal corporate gifts from Tyson to former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. The company already has pleaded guilty to some charges.
On Friday he released a statement blaming the high number of violations at the Waldron plant on the “subjectivity” of the federal inspectors.
While the computer database notes categories of violations, it does not include inspectors’ specific descriptions of the unsanitary conditions being reported.
A Cox Newspapers reporter who visited the Waldron plant recently was refused access to the inspection reports kept in an Agriculture Department office at the plant.
“That - examining the reports - is not something that we are going to allow you to do,” Schaffer told the reporter at the time.
Although the documents are public record, Schaffer and the government inspector in charge at the plant said journalists could see the records only after filing a Freedom of Information Act request in Washington. Such requests often can take months to process.
Six days after the reporter visited the plant, Agriculture Department officials closed the Waldron operation for repeatedly violating sanitation regulations.
A department spokesperson said they had amassed 4,100 violations in 1997. It could not be determined how many of those were critical.
Still, the Arkansas plant’s track record on critical violations was not unique.
While 299 plants had 100 or more critical violations, seven plants topped 1,000 or more in 1996, the last year for which there are complete records.
But the Agriculture Department told Congress that in 1996 it only shut down six plants
Department spokeswoman Jacque Knight would not disclose the names of the plants and in December referred a request for those details to the Freedom of Information Act office. A month later, that office has still not supplied the names of the six plants.
The Clinton administration said late last month that it was planning to ask Congress for significantly more money in the next federal budget to, among other things, increase the number of food inspectors.
The administration says it is responding to the public’s alarm over the safety of the nation’s food supply. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimates that contaminated foods make more than 30 million Americans sick every year - and cause more than 9,000 deaths.
Agriculture Department records show President Clinton’s concerns hit close to home. Arkansas, where Clinton was governor, led the nation with 15,269 critical violations in 1996, even though there are far fewer processing plants there than in states such as California and New York.
While the Cox computer analysis was limited to 1996, inspection records obtained by Cox show the food safety problems were not. They included:
On Feb. 4, 1997 a plant inspector in the Midwest found approximately half the carcasses being processed peppered with “feces, bile, hair.”
On March 17, inspectors at another plant noted kosher slaughtered beef was “completely covered with blood” and there was “commingling of blood (of) several animals” heightening the danger of cross-contamination.
On May 28, a plant was discovered preparing scores of carcasses for sale that had dropped on the plant floor.
“It’s horrendous. It’s horrendous,” said Felicia Nestor, the food safety expert at the Government Accountability Project, a non-profit organization that has supported whistle-blowers among federal food inspectors.
“The part I feel worst about,” Nestor said after learning details of the computer analysis, “is that the vast majority of people would never guess that that’s the situation.”
Nestor scoffed at inspection chief Billy’s explanation that the high volume of critical violations at some plants shows the Agriculture Department has been doing its job.
She said inspectors are not catching every instance of food contamination.
“It’s totally ludicrous to think that they are,” she said.
xxxx REPEAT OFFENDERS While most of the nation’s plants had only a handful of violations, 299 plants were cited weekly.