WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The government's attempts to improve meat and poultry inspection were derided recently as an "inexcusable failure" by a House member who has his own plan for ensuring the safety of the nation's food supply.
"We should be doing a far better job," Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., told the acting assistant secretary for marketing and inspection services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"The USDA uses the same tools in 1993 that it used in the days of Upton Sinclair -- human senses. It is an inexcusable failure by our government to conduct better inspections," Torricelli said during a hearing by the House Subcommittee on Technology, Environment and Aviation.
Torricelli has sponsored a bill that would establish a separate meat, poultry and eggs inspection agency charged with ensuring safe products. It would set and enforce cooking standards for meat and poultry preparation in restaurants and retail food establishments that serve food, and have the authority to inspect them. Also, civil fines up to $1,000 for each violation could be levied.
Since the National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 1985 recommending substantive changes to the U.S. meat and poultry inspection system, nothing has been done, Torricelli complained. Some 9,000 people die yearly in the United States because of food poisoning, and the recent deaths of children in the Pacific Northwest and New Jersey from E. coli pathogens found in contaminated hamburgers reawoke concerns about food safety.
Meat and poultry are inspected primarily by sight, touch and smell. While the Food Safety and Inspection Service at USDA has been charged with ensuring the safety of meat and poultry, there is some congressional concern that an agency whose mandate is to increase agricultural production and promote the sale of U.S. products also oversees the safety of its products.
Patricia Jensen, acting assistant secretary of USDA marketing and inspection services, defended the agency's recent efforts to modernize inspection techniques, and predicted that an inspection technology that uses bioluminescence to determine the levels of bacteria on carcasses could be ready for all U.S. processing plants by October.
Jensen could not predict when the transfer of the technology would be complete, but estimated it could cost up to $2 per test and so could raise the cost of meat and poultry. The test also could be used to ensure that equipment is properly sanitized.
FSIS also is developing imaging technologies, sometimes called machine vision, to identify visual nonconformances on carcasses during slaughter processing, and a technology to identify condemnable poultry carcasses based on their differing absorption of various wavelengths of light.
Also, USDA Secretary Mike Espy has ordered stricter enforcement of sanitation and other food safety requirements in meat and poultry plants, Jensen said.
Further, the FSIS has just distributed almost 2 million postcards nationwide on safe cooking procedures for hamburger. Torricelli addressed safety in the food-service sector. "Why is there no uniform standard for fast-food restaurants?" Torricelli asked Jensen. They should also be made to cook foods to a certain temperature, he said.