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Statement of the American Meat Institute on Leaked GAO Report

Wednesday, July 10, 2002
 

AMI agrees with many of the observations and suggestions made by the General Accounting Office (GAO) in a leaked draft report covered by the news media today. GAO's leaked recommendations seem constructive and we hope that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will find them helpful. We also hope interested parties understand that, while the report is designed to offer criticism and recommendations for improvement, it is far from a condemnation of the U.S. meat and poultry inspection program. In fact, programs as robust as U.S. meat and poultry inspection can benefit and grow from such reviews and recommendations.

In AMI's view, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety systems are, without question, the gold standard for enhancing food safety worldwide. They are endorsed by leading scientific groups and governments around the world. That is why AMI in 1994 petitioned USDA to mandate HACCP systems throughout the meat and poultry industry. However, implementing these systems uniformly and enforcing federal regulations precisely throughout nearly 7,000 U.S. meat and poultry plants staffed by more than 7,000 meat and poultry inspectors is an enormous and complex management task. GAO’s observations certainly paint a vivid picture of the magnitude of the challenge.

One of GAO’s most important recommendations, in the industry’s view, is to enhance inspector training. When the previous Administration began implementing HACCP in 1996 and 1997, the meat industry pressed for better inspector training and suggested that the industry and inspection force be trained jointly to ensure that consistent lessons were learned. USDA opted against joint training and decided not to train its inspection workforce on all aspects of HACCP. In contrast, every meat and poultry plant was required to have HACCP-trained people on staff who understand all of HACCP’s seven core principles.

Comprehensive training was especially important given the resistance of many in the inspector ranks to the HACCP transition. Management experts clearly say that the best means of ensuring smooth transitions is to help the people involved understand the reasons for and benefits of major change. Unfortunately, that did not happen at USDA and GAO’s report underscores the problems of inadequate training.

Current Agriculture Department officials have pledged to enhance training of FSIS inspectors in an effort to improve enforcement and consistency of regulatory oversight nationwide. New computer systems at the Department also will help food safety officials to monitor trends within plants and address potential problems earlier. We look forward to these developments.

The GAO report also noted inadequate funding for sufficient numbers of USDA Consumer Safety Officers (CSOs) who are better trained and who take a more science-based approach to enforcement. We hope that Congress will take seriously future budget requests to ensure that adequate numbers of CSOs can be deployed.

While the inspection system may be in need of improvement, it is not a system in chaos, in contrast to some media reports. The U.S. meat and poultry industry is among the most heavily regulated industries in the nation, with inspectors in our packing plants during every moment of operation. Documented decreases in bacteria on our products paint a picture of a system that is working. Steep declines in foodborne illness trends also tell us that we and our food growing, manufacturing and retailing counterparts are doing something right.

Results are what count most and they say loud and clear we are providing safe and wholesome meat and poultry to consumers. A key component of ensuring safe food is a science-based, consistent inspection system. We look forward to working with the Bush Administration to achieve the change that will bring even greater margins of safety to the U.S. meat and poultry supply.

AMI represents the interests of packers and processors of beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey products and their suppliers throughout North America. Together, AMI's members produce 95 percent of the beef, pork, lamb and veal products and 70 percent of the turkey products in the U.S. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Institute provides legislative, regulatory, public relations, technical, scientific and educational services to the industry. Its affiliate, the AMI Foundation, is a separate 501(c)3 organization that conducts research, education and information projects for the industry.


For more information contact:
Janet Riley
Vice President, Public Affairs
703-841-2400
jriley@meatinstitute.org
Josee Daoust
Manager, Public Affairs
703-841-2400
jdaoust@meatinstitute.org

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