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A job for the USDA

State departments of agriculture are notorious bastions of good old boys who nod and wink at the abuses of the farmers, livestock operators and others they are supposed to oversee. In too many instances, these cozy relationships have proved dangerous to consumers.

The bond between the Florida Department of Agriculture and the state's meatpacking industry is nothing short of disgraceful, if an article in the July 17 issue of the Wall Street Journal is accurate. Florida is one of 24 states that have a dual inspection system. Under this system, the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects the large companies that sell across state lines, and the state inspects the nearly 160 mostly small packers that sell only in Florida.

According to the Journal, these small outfits account for only $100-million of Florida's meatpacking industry, or roughly 10 percent of total sales. But many of them routinely violate the state's sanitation rules without fear of serious punishment. During the last three years, for example, state inspectors have shut down Miami's La Villarena Meat & Pork Inc. 60 times for sanitary violations, such as dead flies on the floors, moldy cutting boards and left-over animal matter on slicing machines.

Within mere hours of shutting down the plant, however, officials always let it reopen. Consumer advocates, along with many state inspectors themselves, argue that this lack of oversight is directly responsible for the many outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in the state. The Centers for Disease Control reports that Florida is among the 10 states that log the highest incidence of food-borne illnesses each year.

A major reason for this problem is that lawmakers have cut the state Department of Agriculture's budget to the bone, leaving a mere 68 inspectors to oversee nearly 160 facilities. Some inspectors often are scheduled to be at two plants at the same time. Last year alone, legislators slashed the department's meat inspection budget by 25 percent. As a result, more officials have become convinced that inspections should be turned over to the feds, who have considerably higher standards and 113 inspectors for the 112 companies they monitor.

Such a move is long overdue. Big chain stores and large restaurant chains probably receive little, if any, meat from small packers. But many independent grocers and mom-and-pop eateries in poor communities do. As a result, people in these neighborhoods eat contaminated meats and experience serious outbreaks of sickness.

Nothing is more cynical than taking advantage of poor neighborhoods, and the state has an obligation to protect these residents. If Tallahassee is unwilling to fund adequate meat inspection, maybe the time has come to hand over all inspections to the USDA.