But three of these plants were among the 10 worst offenders 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. The plant with the worst record by far was one of the five in the pilot program.
In these cases, the contaminated meat did not leave the plants because it was caught by government inspectors once it reached the end of the processing line. But federal officials consider this too late in the process and repeatedly cited the plants for serious safety failures.
While the inspection procedures are still in the experimental stage, the USDA has allowed other countries to use a process deemed to be equivalent in plants producing red meat for export to the United States.
Within the past two years, plants using the procedures in Canada and Australia have experienced a rash of problems, according to internal e-mails, letters and other documents.
Last fall, for example, a Canadian beef-processing plant using the inspection system had to recall 8.8 million pounds of beef and beef products tainted with E. coli — about 2.5 million pounds of which went to the U.S. market. Canadian government safety inspectors said the faster line speeds were partly responsible for the contamination.
And since the beginning of last year, 11 shipments of beef, mutton and goat meat from at least four Australian plants using the procedures were stopped at U.S. ports because of contamination, which included fecal matter and partly digested food, records show. (Both fecal matter and partly digested food may contain concentrated and complex strains of bacterium such as E. coli and listeria, which can be deadly.)
Officials in the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) declined interview requests for this article. They also did not respond to written questions.
USDA officials have told federal auditors that the agency plans to complete its evaluation of the pilot program by the spring and that it hopes after that to propose rules for expanding the inspection system nationwide.
Dozens of chicken plants have also been enrolled in a similar pilot program. The USDA plans to finalize regulations this year, allowing the procedures to be used in all chicken and turkey plants.
Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, has praised the new inspection procedures. One week before the USDA inspector general’s office issued the critical report this spring, Hagen told the Food Chemical News, a trade publication, that the pilot initiative has produced safety results the department is “comfortable [with] and confident in.”