WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a move derided by meat packers and consumers, federal meat inspectors will start conducting “risk-based” inspections at 254 processing plants in April, under a plan detailed by the Agriculture Department on Thursday.
The plan calls for devoting more attention to plants where the government has higher concerns over meat safety, U.S. officials said. But the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspections Service will still continue daily inspection of all processing plants, said Richard Raymond, agriculture undersecretary for food safety.
Raymond touted the changes as a way to boost protection against meat contamination. Under the new system, the level of inspections at a plant would be pegged to its safety record, including prior inspection and microbiological tests.
The consumer group Food and Water Watch said USDA’s existing data is incomplete and not precise enough to know how plants are performing.
The American Meat Institute, a trade group for packers, criticized USDA for the “hasty roll-out” of the plan without testing the idea or being sure of industry and consumer support.
“USDA is forcing 250 plants that produce branded, trusted meat and poultry products into a new and controversial program with little notice or buy-in,” said AMI President Patrick Boyle.
Key lawmakers also expressed concern.
“I think it is a mistake for (USDA) to move forward with risk-based inspection at this time, and I will be monitoring what happens very closely,” said Rep. Rosa Delauro, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees USDA.
Carline Smith-DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said Raymond told consumer groups that, if there are problems with the initial plants, there will be no expansion of the project.
“We have to be careful they don’t roll it out before it is ready,” said DeWaal.
There are about 6,000 livestock slaughter and meat processing plants in the United States.