FSIS exemplifies growing inadequacy of U.S. food inspection regime

the products under its jurisdiction. In 2002 the agency announced 123 recalls. The number of recalls has declined since 2002, but their severity has increased. Two of the three biggest meat recalls in U.S. history have occurred in the past four months. In October 2007, Topps Meat Co. announced the recall of 21.7 million pounds of ground beef used for frozen hamburgers due to E. coli contamination. At the time, the Topps recall was the second largest in U.S. history. The E. coli-contaminated meat sickened at least 40 people in eight states. On 17 February, Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. announced the recall of more than 143 million pounds of beef, the largest recall in U.S. history. The company announced the recall after an investigation by the Humane Society of the United States showed that nonambulatory (or “downer”) cows were slaughtered and allowed into the market. Federal regulations prohibit companies from processing and selling meat from downer cows without explicit FSIS inspector approval because downer cows have a higher probability of being infected with mad cow disease. USDA officials, however, say the health risks posed by the Hallmark/Westland beef are low.

In 2005 FSIS began considering switching to risk-based inspection practices. FSIS says it would move additional inspectors to processing plants determined to have a high risk. The agency has also proposed virtual inspection — a process by which cameras would monitor facilities’ compliance with food safety regulations — for lower-risk plants, according to sources familiar with the issue. FSIS hopes to finalize the switch before the end of the Bush administration. Critics believe the transition to a risk-based inspection model is directly tied to agency resources. According to a report by the nonprofit group Food and Water Watch, “Far from a minor adjustment intended to maximize food safety, this plan is really being used as a way to reduce the USDA’s budget.” The report adds, “The changes in the way inspectors are assigned to meat and poultry plants would make current inspector shortages permanent, effectively shrinking the size of the agency’s frontline inspection workforce.”

Recent failures of the meat inspection regime have provided the public and Congress a window into the breakdown of FSIS’s ability to safeguard a large part of the nation’s food supply. Although resource allocation within the agency may be open to criticism, it is clear that Congress has failed to maintain funding levels for FSIS comparable to the size of the meat, poultry, and egg industries. Restoring and enhancing FSIS’s capacity to protect consumers is not restricted to a single-dimension policy change, but it does require that Congress provide adequate levels of funding that would allow FSIS to keep up with its responsibilities and fulfill its mission.