Beefing Up Inspections

Modernizing the 'poke-and-sniff' approach to meat and poultry inspection has produced a culture clash at FSIS.

Several toddlers died and hundreds of people were sickened in the Pacific Northwest in early 1993 after eating hamburgers tainted with E. coli bacteria. The outbreak eventually brought the most massive changes in U.S. meat inspection since the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was created by the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act, the year Upton Sinclair's muckraking exposé of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, was published.

In 1993, President Clinton had just taken office when the E. coli outbreak gave him a chance to demonstrate his administration's concern and resolve. Then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy visited the Northwest and promised reforms during congressional hearings. Ultimately, the 1993 outbreak forced FSIS to do what scientists and consumer advocates had urged for 20 years: declare deadly microscopic pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella subject to regulation and modernize the "poke and sniff" inspection system in place since 1907.

FSIS has reorganized its field structure, bought new computers, begun to automate its laboratories and announced plans to hire better-educated employees. (Only about a quarter of inspectors have college degrees.) But modernization has struck fear in the hearts of meat inspectors. FSIS and its workers are on opposites sides in court fighting over the agency's new meat and poultry food safety program--the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. In a culture clash that threatens the agency's modernization, meat inspectors have marshaled their powerful union to oppose what many consumers and scientists view as the inevitable march of science at the agency.

Two issues divide the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals and FSIS: whether carcass-by-carcass inspection of every bird and animal by FSIS employees is necessary, and the retraining of current inspectors in the technical skills needed for HACCP. About 7,400 of FSIS' 9,702 employees are inspectors. The Joint Council represents all inspectors and food technologists, but not veterinarians or supervisors. So far, inspectors have confined their skirmishes to court, but should they lose there, they could go public with a campaign questioning whether the new system truly ensures meat and poultry safety.

From Poking to Pathogens

A central tenet of the 1907 meat inspection law was that federal employees would inspect and approve every slaughtered and processed animal carcass sold across state lines. The 1907 law, a 1957 statute requiring poultry inspection and a 1970 law covering egg products resulted in a system of "organoleptic"--smell, touch and feel--examinations by FSIS inspectors in 6,200 plants. They inspect more than 6 billion poultry carcasses and 125 million livestock carcasses--mostly beef, pork and lamb--before and after slaughter each year.

FSIS employees visually examine carcasses as they speed by on meat company production lines. Speeds vary by type of meat. While as many as 25 young chickens or 32 turkeys may pass an inspector per minute, the rate for steers and heifers varies from 59 to 390 per hour depending on the number of inspectors on duty. If inspectors find evidence of contamination or disease, they inspect further and, if they find contamination, can order plant managers to stop the line.

In recent years, scientists and consumer advocates have derided the poke-and-sniff inspections, saying they waste time looking for tuberculosis, brucellosis and other diseases that are now extremely rare. Agriculture Department lawyers argued that pathogens occurred naturally in meat and poultry and couldn't be regulated.

But in 1993, members of families whose children died during the Northwest E. coli outbreak and other incidents organized Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP) to push for improved inspections.

In September 1994, FSIS announced it would begin regulating pathogens, testing for E. coli and criminally penalizing companies that distributed tainted meat. Two years later, FSIS required all meat and poultry plants to establish HACCP, a system of management steps to reduce the presence of E. coli and other pathogens. FSIS also required plants to meet salmonella standards and to test for E. coli. Large companies were to comply by January 1998; the smallest have until January 2000.

To ensure companies comply with HACCP and pathogen reduction, FSIS introduced a new, very different type of testing in addition to organoleptic inspections. HACCP moves FSIS inspectors away from the production line into monitoring meat company management practices with only spot inspections of carcasses. Companies write and implement HACCP plans. FSIS employees analyze the plans, monitor company records, and conduct laboratory tests for salmonella and E. coli to ensure company testing is accurate. FSIS staffers use the agency's computerized database to record instances of company noncompliance. Inspectors can shut down production if examination of company records shows failure to follow HACCP procedures or if the plant is exceeding baseline standards for salmonella.

Inspectors vs. HACCP

In 1993, FSIS agreed with the union that HACCP would be an enhancement to or- ganoleptic inspection, not a substitute for it. FSIS Administrator Thomas J. Billy, formerly director of the Food and Drug Administration's seafood inspection office, created FDA's HACCP program for seafood. He and Catherine Woteki, Agriculture undersecretary for food safety, repeatedly have said that organoleptic inspections still will be necessary for meat and poultry under HACCP and that FSIS inspectors will not lose their jobs. Union officials maintain that FSIS officials aren't telling the truth. The union's April 8 lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington seeks to halt HACCP implementation on the grounds that FSIS intends to stop carcass-by-carcass inspections, which the union contends are required by law.

"The Clinton administration's No. 1 concern is downsizing the federal workforce. That's their priority, not food safety," says Arthur Hughes, a Maine meat inspector who is vice president of the Joint Council. "If you can get rid of the inspectors, this is going to enhance inspection?"

Union fears feed on FSIS' argument that the legal requirement for continuous inspection of every carcass doesn't necessarily mean carcass-by-carcass inspection on the production line. Nor has science brought the union comfort. In August, the National Academy of Sciences urged Congress to "modify" the carcass-by-carcass inspection requirements to free up resources to address other food safety problems. In a September report, the General Accounting Office accepted the scientific community's view that organoleptic inspections "primarily identify defects in quality but do not detect microbial contamination."

Consumer advocates say it's too soon to tell whether it's safe to cut back significantly on continuous inspection. "Nobody has done the studies to show what benefit carcass-by-carcass inspection may have for minimizing microbial contamination," says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Carol Tucker Foreman, a former assistant Agriculture secretary for food safety and founder of the Safe Food Coalition, says continuous inspection should continue until FSIS can demonstrate that HACCP produces cleaner, safer products that are less likely to cause foodborne illness. "I am very concerned that people are going to pull inspectors out of these plants precipitously," Foreman says.

Shifting Culture

FSIS has told Congress it is working to create a "cultural shift" within the agency and industry to ensure a successful transition to HACCP-based inspection. The agency has established two programs for HACCP inspectors at its training center at Texas A&M University. A mandatory two-week training program teaches the specifics of the job and a voluntary full week, college-based course explains the scientific background for HACCP. FSIS says HACCP inspector training has gone smoothly, but a meat industry official, who requested anonymity, says inspectors' science education is not equal to that of plant managers and employees.

The union is unhappy that FSIS has declined to provide HACCP training to employees at the GS-7 grade level, the grade of most inspectors. Lewis Burgman, manager of FSIS' Atlanta district, says the agency simply could not afford to train employees below GS-8 to do HACCP inspections because the agency would have to train too many people.

FSIS has announced that it intends to hire more scientifically trained employees. Billy says FSIS also is planning a new job classification system to reflect the need for future employees with more scientific education. Billy says the system will mirror FDA's. He plans to include "transitional" slots for longtime FSIS personnel who may not be qualified for the new job categories. David E. Green, manager of the FSIS Chicago district, says the agency has not changed its hiring criteria so far.

Long-term relationships between plant operators and meat inspectors will require yet another form of culture change. Meat plant managers and inspectors have grown accustomed to working together. Many have fashioned "find and fix" systems: "The inspector finds it, the plant fixes it and life goes on," the industry official says. That relationship must change if plants are going to initiate their own HACCP systems and be monitored, rather than directed, by FSIS inspectors.

Time-Saving Technology

Even before the data-based HACCP system was introduced, FSIS had begun acquiring new computer equipment and putting into place its new Field Automation and Information Management (FAIM) system. FAIM will speed input of the 15 million inspection observations FSIS personnel make each year so contamination patterns can be more quickly detected.

Until FAIM, inspection data was transmitted via a slow, labor-intensive combination of paper and telephone, says Peter Kuhmerker, FAIM project manager. By 1999, FSIS plans to have computers in the hands of all inspection staffers and expects to be transmitting all inspection data electronically. The latest inspection policies and procedures also will be available online, Kuhmerker says.

The new computer system is speeding up the cycle time between lab results and actions taken based on those results. Before FAIM, there was a three- to four-week lag. Now actions based on lab results can be taken the next day. Inspectors record data on the incidence of diseased animals, HACCP analysis and corrective actions into the Performance-Based Inspection System (PBIS), FSIS' national database. Putting 60 inspection and other forms online has significantly cut FSIS paperwork. An agency study showed that using e-mail and online technical references saved inspectors more than 30 minutes a day.

FSIS has its own chief information officer and closely coordinates technology purchases and architecture from headquarters. The agency maintains a toll-free telephone help desk that is open 16 hours a day. An FSIS pilot study found a $1.60 return on every dollar spent on information technology, but Kuhmerker believes that amount is too low. Agency customers speak highly of the FSIS World Wide Web site (www.fsis.usda.gov).

Pleas for Fees

For many years, FSIS has sought permission from legislators to impose inspection fees. But industry groups and consumer advocates oppose fees and Congress has never come close to granting the request. Agency budget officials track the cost of inspecting meat and poultry on a per-pound basis and say they could calculate user fees if necessary. FSIS doesn't do formal cost accounting because so much of its budget--85 percent--is spent on salaries, officials say.

FSIS capital management is relatively uncomplicated. Besides computers, FSIS' only capital assets are three laboratories. Joseph Chiu, director of FSIS' Western laboratory in Alameda, Calif., says the labs are the "backbone" of science-based food safety. The budget for the labs has risen from $34 million in 1997 to a requested $37 million in 1998. Chiu said it is the agency's philosophy to buy equipment whenever possible rather than planning to hire additional staff because science is changing so quickly that the equipment can be changed faster than staff can be retrained.

Meaty Measures

In its 1999 annual performance plan, FSIS says its will judge the success of HACCP against a goal of reducing the 5 million annual cases of meat and poultry-related foodborne illness by 25 percent by the year 2000. It's too soon to tell whether the agency is making progress toward that goal, but Margaret Glavin, deputy FSIS administrator for policy, program development and evaluation, cautions that illness and mortality standards will be difficult for FSIS to meet. Statistics on foodborne illness are kept not by FSIS, but by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and are based on data provided by states. State data varies in quality so changes may or may not be an exact reflection of trends in foodborne illness and food safety, Glavin says.

FSIS currently judges its success by measuring industry HACCP compliance rates and the presence of pathogens in meat and poultry. FSIS has found that more than 90 percent of large meat and poultry plants are complying with HACCP. Last September, the agency released studies showing the salmonella incidence in poultry carcasses had dropped from 20 percent to 10.4 percent and in swine carcasses from 8.7 percent to 5.5 percent. Evaluating changes in the incidence of pathogens will remain an inexact science for the next few years, because FSIS did not regulate pathogens in meat and poultry until 1994 and therefore lacks baseline data.

House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations committee aides say Billy is doing well at modernizing FSIS and upgrading its workforce. But trouble looms among the nearly 6,000 small plants just coming under HACCP this year. Small plant operators almost succeeded in getting appropriations committees to halt HACCP. Former Agriculture official Foreman and others fear the small operators still may seek exemptions or a slower schedule. If they win such breaks, currently cooperative large operators might view special deals for smaller plants as unfair competition and balk at continuing their costly HACCP systems. Clinton administration officials have said they will ask for $65 million in the fiscal 2000 budget to aid small plants.

Billy's path looks rugged for the foreseeable future.

GPP report card

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Management Grades

Financial Management B
Human Resources C
Information Technology/Capital Management B
Managing for Results B
Average B
FSIS
Food Safety
and Inspection Service

Parent department
Agriculture

Created
1906

Mission
"Ensuring the nation's
commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products
is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged."

Top official
Thomas J. Billy

Number of employees
9,702

Operating budget
1994: $589 million
1998: $517 million

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