Test of privatized meat inspection system called inconclusive

The Agriculture Department has not been able to prove that private sector personnel inspect poultry as thoroughly as government employees, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office. Two years ago, Agriculture developed a pilot program to reduce the number of government inspectors stationed on the slaughter line and to transfer some of their inspection duties to personnel employed by meat and poultry plants. Under the program, plant employees perform the majority of initial poultry inspections under the supervision of an inspector from the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). As part of the pilot project, FSIS inspectors at participating poultry plants examined carcasses to evaluate how well plant employees identified defects, and monitored their use of sanitation equipment. The pilot project, which compared the performance of the new system with that of the old, contained "several design and methodology limitations" that compromised the study's results, according to GAO's report (GAO-02-59). GAO questioned the reliability of data from the pilot project. The results of the project found that the new poultry inspection system worked better than the traditional method, which involves more government employees. GAO criticized Agriculture for not using a control group in the project, failing to randomly select the poultry plants that participated in the study, and not requiring inspection training for plant employees. GAO also criticized Agriculture for allowing plants that repeatedly failed to comply with regulatory requirements to participate in the pilot project.

Both Agriculture and an independent contractor gathered and measured data. According to GAO, the two sets of data produced slightly different results in areas such as the number of poultry plants that met safety standards under the new inspection system. In 1997, Agriculture adopted a new science-based system for identifying where contamination is most likely to occur during food production to improve the effectiveness of the meat and poultry inspection process. The new system, aimed at preventing contamination, makes industry more accountable for the safety of its products, while enabling the government to oversee the inspection process with fewer resources. While GAO supports Agriculture's approach to a new meat inspection system, the "design of this pilot will not permit USDA to reach conclusions about whether the new system of modified inspections performs as well as the traditional system," the report said. Despite the pilot program's inconclusive results, about 70 percent of FSIS inspectors and veterinarians who GAO surveyed believed that the new inspection system was "equal to or somewhat better" than traditional inspections, the report said. If Agriculture decides to move forward with its proposed changes to the inspection program, the agency should ensure that only plants with a good history of regulatory compliance are eligible to participate in the program and provide proper training for plant inspection personnel, GAO recommended. GAO also urged Agriculture to require plants to adopt systems to manage and control their production. Officials from the Agriculture Department agreed with GAO's recommendations.

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