Random tests don’t scare bacteria

Erik Hoversten

On Tuesday the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed cuts in inspector visits to meat processing plants. Currently inspectors visit each processing plant once a shift, including overtime runs. The USDA is proposing daily, random checks that would begin in a year.

The USDA, which has 7,500 inspectors, would save $4 million a year while meat processors, who have to cover inspectors’ overtime pay, would save $19 million. Inspectors often work 12-hour shifts and can earn $14,000 a year in overtime in addition to their salaries, which average $35,000 to $45,000. The move is opposed by the USDA inspector’s union.

“If a plant does not know when an inspector might show up we think there’s some deterrent there,” said Margaret Glavin, associate administrator of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. She did admit that reduced inspections will save plants money but denied that it was the purpose.

This seemed a little suspect to me, especially considering that 15 people died of food poisoning in 1998 due to bad hot dogs from a Michigan plant. Less is not more when it comes to food inspections.

It turns out that the announcement came one day after the comment deadline for the proposed increases in fees for federal meat grading and certification, which puts the USDA’s altruism in question.

Most people do not know that meat inspection and grading are two different things.

Meat inspection is a mandatory program conducted by the USDA FSIS. Meat inspection began in 1891. In 1905, Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle,” an expos‚ on the poor sanitary conditions in the packing industry which ignited public protest.

In 1906, the Federal Meat Inspection Act required the inspection of livestock and carcasses destined for foreign and interstate sale. In 1967, legislation was passed to require inspection for all meat sold within the same state.

Meat inspection costs each taxpayer less than $2 a year, which seems pretty reasonable to a heartless carnivore like myself.

Meat grading is a voluntary service performed by the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA. Grading involves evaluating meat on factors that predict the taste and the quantity (yield) of meat on a carcass. Meat grading began in 1902 when Herbert Mumford published a series of bulletins. His motivation was to establish grades for cattle to make market reports more accessible to the press and to give livestock raisers a better understanding of market requirements.

The USDA began developing grading standards in 1916 which were published in 1923. Public hearings were held in 1925 in Portland, Chicago and New York to give everyone a chance to make suggestions, but according to the USDA, people were largely satisfied with the proposed grades.

Beef grades were adopted in 1926 and were given a free one-year trial period in 1927. Packers claimed that it was not a practical program, but producers and feeders had formed the Better Beef Association which lobbied to get the program implemented.

The grading service got a huge boost from federal price controls which made grading mandatory during World War II and the Korean Conflict. Grading allowed local packers to compete with national brands.

Unlike inspection, grading is required by law to be financially self supporting. Processors pay the cost of grading.

Fees for meat grading have not changed since 1993. Since then the AMS has closed three field offices and reduced the mid-level supervisory staff by more than 50 percent and support staff by 38 percent.

However, Congressionally mandated salary increases for federal employees, inflation of operating costs and the cost of becoming Y2K compliant has become too much. The AMS lost $852,000 in fiscal 1999 and without fee increases, estimated losses will be $9 million over the next three years. The fee increases would provide an extra $175,000 per month.

According to the Federal Register, despite these increases, the price per pound of grading will remain virtually unchanged at $0.0006 per pound. Such a change should not affect the consumer but will take a chunk out of packers profit margins.

Changes in the meat grading system over the years have been influenced by government and industry research, consumer research and lobbying groups which make it difficult to know whether changes have been improvements. In an industry in which lobbying plays such a large part, it is no surprise that packers would not take meat grading fee increases, though completely reasonable and necessary, sitting down.

Proposed reductions in meat inspections just one day after the end of the discussion period for fee increases is highly suspect and questions the integrity of the USDA and their concern for public health. Random checks do not scare bacteria from living on meat.

Erik Hoversten is a senior in math from Eagan, Minn.