But science has done little to thin the ranks of traditional inspectors. The law requires that they be present whenever animals are slaughtered and that they visit meat processing plants at least once a day. The USDA has more than 7,500 people doing the job — more inspectors than it has slaughterhouses and processing plants to inspect.
The USDA launched an initiative in 1997 that would have shifted some responsibility for identifying carcass defects on slaughter lines to food company employees so that inspectors could focus more on microbial contaminations, USDA officials said. But a year later, the American Federation of Government Employees, some federal inspectors and a public-interest group sued to block the plan, alleging that it scrapped the carcass-by-carcass inspections required by the 1906 law.
As a result of the court battle, the USDA was forced to keep at least one inspector on each slaughter line.
Richard Raymond, a former USDA undersecretary of food safety, tried another approach in 2005. He worked to reallocate the time inspectors spend in meat processing plants based on the facilities’ safety record and the risk posed by the foods processed: Ground-beef plants, for example, would get more attention than a canned-ham operation.
But after two years of discussion with the food industry, consumer groups and unions, Congress barred the USDA from using funds to pursue the initiative. Raymond said he suspects that unions, fearful for their members’ jobs, blocked the effort.
In January, the USDA unveiled a proposal that would keep one inspector on each poultry slaughter line while the rest focused on what the agency considers higher risks, such as testing poultry for pathogens. Much of the responsibility for spotting obvious problems with the carcasses would fall to the plant’s employees.
The voluntary proposal would save taxpayers more than $90 million over three years, lower production costs for the industry by $257 million a year and better protect the public against contaminants, USDA officials say.
Some consumer advocates worry that the government would be shirking its responsibility to protect the food supply.
They can point to studies that indicate meat and poultry continue to pose a serious threat. An analysis released last year by the University of Florida, for example, looked at the burden that tainted food puts on society, taking into account medical costs, lost days on the job and suffering.Topping the list were poultry tainted with the Campylobacter pathogen and pork contaminated with Toxoplasma.
But other advocates say change is overdue.
“It’s not necessary to have an inspector in a plant every day watching carcasses whiz by,” said Bill Marler, a lawyer who has represented thousands of victims in tainted-food cases. “The battle we’re fighting now is not the tumor on the cow. It’s the microbe that you can’t see, taste or smell that will kill you.”