WASHINGTON — A meat inspection program that the Agriculture Department plans to roll out in pork plants nationwide has repeatedly failed to stop plants' production of contaminated meat, documents and interviews show.
The program allows meat producers to increase the speed of processing lines and cuts the number of USDA safety inspectors at each plant in half, replacing them with private inspectors. Under a pilot program, the approach has been used for more than a decade by five American hog plants. But three of these plants were among the 10 worst in the country for health and safety violations, with serious lapses that included failing to remove fecal matter from meat, according to a report this spring by the USDA inspector general.
In these cases, the contaminated meat did not leave the plants because it was caught by government inspectors at the end of the processing line. But federal officials consider this too late in the process.
One week before the USDA inspector general's office issued the critical report this spring, Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, told the Food Chemical News, a trade publication, that the pilot initiative has produced safety results the department is "comfortable with and confident in."
Others involved are concerned.
"There is a lot of controversy surrounding this program," said Patricia Buck, co-founder of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention. "We should not be putting it out there, saying it is OK for other countries to use, when it has so many flaws and when contaminated meat is coming in."