WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For three decades, U.S. inspectors visited 250 meat processing plants as rarely as once every two weeks despite federal law requiring daily inspection, Agriculture Department officials admitted to lawmakers on Thursday.
"All I can say is, it's been going on for a long time," said Undersecretary Richard Raymond to the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture. "It's going to stop now."
There are 6,000 federally inspected slaughterhouses and meat processing plants in the United States, USDA says.
The practice started under directives issued in the early 1970s, said Raymond. He told reporters afterward that daily inspections would commence "soon, damn soon." He said the plants apparently were small operations located a long distance from an inspector's base.
Also during the hearing, Raymond said USDA would delay until June or July the implementation of "risk-based inspection" of processing plants, rather than begin in April. USDA may propose at the end of 2007 to adopt the system at slaughterhouses, he said.
Subcommittee chairwoman Rosa DeLauro repeatedly challenged whether USDA has the data needed to justify the new inspection system. "If I can help it, not on my watch," said the Connecticut Democrat in adjourning the hearing. She said Raymond would be called to another hearing in April.
DeLauro said the infrequent inspections at the 250 plants could be a violation of meat inspection laws, which require daily inspection. "I believe you're exactly right," replied Raymond, who is in charge of food safety at USDA.
While Raymond said he learned three weeks ago of the practice, DeLauro said "I find it very improbable" no one at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which runs the meat inspection system, was aware of it.
FSIS acting administrator David Goldman told the subcommittee the 250 plants were not allowed to ship meat without inspection. They held it until approved by an inspector, he said. Some plants were checked twice a week and others were visited once every two weeks, said Goldman.
Raymond said he would take steps to assure all plants received daily inspection.
"It is critical that FSIS from this point forward document that plants are visited daily, as required by law," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Federal law requires continuous inspection of packing plants and daily inspection of processing plants.