December 11, 2005
Washington Farm Report
When it comes to products that food regulators have to worry about, canned hams aren’t high on the list. Fresh sausages would be another matter.
But the government devotes just as many inspectors to checking canned hams as it does to sausages. Or put another way, the sausages get no more scrutiny from inspectors than the canned hams.
Richard Raymond, a Nebraska doctor who this year took over the top food-safety post in the U.S. Agriculture Department, says it’s time to change that.
Raymond wants USDA to go to a risk-based inspection system that considers the products’ potential hazards and the history of a processing plant in deciding where to allocate staff.
A heat-treated product such as a canned ham or soup is far less likely to carry harmful bacteria than a product such as a sausage or even deli meats, which are at high risk for carrying Listeria. And some processors take more measures than others to kill the bacteria that could be on their products.
Raymond, who is USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, compares himself to a governor or state police chief who is trying to figure out how to prevent traffic fatalities.
“If you knew which highway had the most deaths, that’s where you put the most troopers and radars,” he says.
Michael Doyle, a microbiologist at the University of Georgia who is one of the nation’s leading experts on food safety, says it makes sense for USDA to reallocate inspectors based on risk. That would provide an incentive for companies to improve sanitation on their own, he says.
“If the industry doesn’t want to do that, then from a public health perspective their product would be considered a whole lot riskier,” he says.
Raymond is vague about what he has in mind. He says he doesn’t have a plan yet, and just recently put his idea to a panel of scientists, consumer advocates and industry officials that advises the department.
Raymond risks running afoul of the 1906 Meat Inspection Act, which grew out of the problems in the meatpacking industry chronicled by Upton Sinclair in the book “The Jungle.”
Under that law, inspectors scrutinize every carcass and check daily on every plant in the country that handles meat products. Inspectors focus on finding contamination or violations of regulations.
Under a risk-based system, inspectors would be more focused on finding where a plant is likely to have a sanitation problem and would put more of their time into plants that are having problems.
The Clinton administration tried something like what Raymond has in mind. USDA tried to move inspectors off the lines in some chicken plants so they could concentrate more on oversight and product testing rather than looking for stray feathers and defects on the carcasses. USDA officials thought that should be the job of company employees.
However, the inspectors and some consumer advocates objected. A court, citing the 1906 law, forced USDA to keep inspectors on the lines where they could physically check each carcass.
Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, doesn’t think Raymond can get very far unless Congress changes the 1906 law.
“There are clearly areas where we need more and better inspection,” she says. “Meats that can carry Listeria or E. coli . . . are meats that should be inspected more than they are today. Whereas other products could be inspected a little less than they are today.”
But DeWaal says the department doesn’t have enough inspectors as it is.
Raymond says the department isn’t going to get more inspectors and needs to do a better job allocating the ones it has.
He is determined to avoid the political obstacles his predecessors ran into.
He’s meeting monthly with a group of consumer activists, and he is forming another group representing union leaders, inspectors and front-line supervisors.
Raymond also can point out that he has an unusual qualification for a government food regulator: He’s treated people who have gotten sick from food. He thinks food can be made safer.
“I didn’t make this move from Nebraska just to be a caretaker of a good system,” he says.