The US government wants more processors to change the way their products are inspected, although congressional investigators say there is no proof the new system is as safe as the traditional programme.

According to a report by CNN, under the new system federal inspectors no longer do hand-checks of carcasses, leaving that job to company employees. “The inspectors are supposed to spend more time monitoring plant sanitation equipment, overseeing plant workers and sampling products for contamination,” the report says. The Agriculture Department, which says the changes will result in safer meat, has decided not to make the system mandatory but plans to expand it to new facilities on a voluntary basis.

“This is an improved system, but it depends on a lot of things, including plant commitment,” according to Margaret Glavin, acting administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The report quotes Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, saying that “USDA’s decision to continue the programme makes no sense, as it is a recipe for a food safety disaster.”

A report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) cited test results that indicate some plants participating in a pilot project had more problems with some types of contamination. “Five of 11 chicken processing plants had higher rates of salmonella contamination than previously, and two processors showed improvement. Tests also found higher rates of defects, such as bruises, on chickens processed by many of the 11 plants,” according to General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The report adds that the only reason for the administration to go forward after the GAO report is to give in to the poultry industry’s pressure to run their production lines faster. “Faster lines speeds results in more faecal material on poultry,” according to Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America. Foreman oversaw USDA’s food safety programme during the Carter administration.

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Data collected by an independent testing firm showed that faecal material, which can carry dangerous bacteria, continued to show up on chicken in ten of the 11 plants using the new inspection system, according to the GAO. “As many as seven of the 11 plants had higher rates of some quality defects, problems such as bruises and stray feathers, that posed no health hazard, the report said. Data gathered by USDA found somewhat better results. Even so, the testing that has been done so far doesn’t prove that the modified inspections are at least equal to traditional inspections, which was the USDA’s criteria for going forward with the programme, the GAO said.

The Agriculture Department started the project in 1999 and is now operating the new inspection system in 25 plants and slaughter of chickens, turkeys and hogs. The inspectors union has been fighting the project in court, contending the traditional system is better. “Nevertheless, the GAO found broad support for the experimental system among rank-and-file inspectors,” the CNN report said.

Seventy-one percent of USDA inspectors and veterinarians surveyed by the GAO said products were as safe as or safer under the new system. Some inspectors, according to the report, said they have more time to oversee the slaughter lines and collect carcass samples that they did before.

“USDA officials said they decided to keep the programme voluntary partly out of fear standards might slip in plants and were not willing to put the time and money into making improvements,” the report  concludes.

By Aaron Priel, correspondent