The record recall over the weekend of 143 million pounds of ground beef illustrates a key gap that remains despite recent federal efforts to bolster food safety: the quality of government inspections continues to vary, say food safety experts.
“You go to one plant, and they do an excellent job. You go to another, and they don’t,” said Temple Grandin, an animal handling expert at Colorado State University who helped develop industry guidelines on proper practices and regularly visits plants.
Government inspectors frequently miss violations during daily checks of the more than 200 slaughterhouses around the country, and some inspectors ignore warning signs altogether, Grandin said. Based on her own observations, Grandin estimates that at least 10 percent of meat companies try to sidestep regulations.
“Our inspection program for foods – whether at the (Food and Drug Administration) or U.S. (Department of Agriculture) – needs to be revisited,” said Michael Doyle, a food safety expert at the University of Georgia.
The USDA denied that enforcement was insufficient and emphasized that the government employs many types of safeguards, including plant inspections, to prevent food contamination.
“We know our inspectors were correctly inspecting the plant,” said Amanda Eamich, spokeswoman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
On Sunday, Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. of Chino, Calif., withdrew the millions of pounds of ground beef – and the government barred further sales – after an undercover video by the Humane Society of the United States showed workers using electric prods and forklifts to move apparently sick cattle for slaughter.
The cattle apparently showed signs of illness during a period between getting a clean bill of health by inspectors and being slaughtered. Federal rules require veterinarians to be contacted in such cases, but the calls were not made in this case.