Report: Pilot USDA inspection program failed to catch tainted pork

None of the contaminated product entered the food supply, according to The Washington Post report.

However, the revelation is likely to add to mounting criticism of plans to overhaul federal inspection rules for poultry and hogs.

A trio of pilot programs at chicken, turkey and hog plants has been operating for roughly 15 years. The USDA programs are the basis for plans to modernize the poultry inspection process by cutting the number of on-site inspectors and shifting much of the responsibility for detecting problems with chicken and turkey carcasses to plant employees. The regulations could subsequently be extended to hog plants.

The agency issued draft regulations in January of last year that would adopt the new system for poultry plants.

Beyond cutting federal inspectors, the 2012 proposal would allow plants to increase line speeds, allowing as many as 175 carcasses to pass by workers every minute. 

Food and worker safety groups panned the proposed rule, arguing it would increase risks to plant employees and public health.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report last week, concluding the USDA  “has not thoroughly evaluated the performance of each of the pilot projects over time even though the agency stated it would do so when it announced the pilot projects.”

Further, the GAO recommended that the Agriculture Department begin analyzing the performance of the pilot program for hogs in advance of any additional proposed regulations involving changes in inspection at those plants.

Of five American hog plants in the pilot program, three “were among the 10 worst offenders in the country for health and safety violations, “ according to the Post report, which cites analysis issued this spring by the USDA’s inspector general.

Safety lapses included, “failing to remove fecal matter from meat,” according to the report.  Government inspectors discovered the contaminated meat was discovered at the end of the production line, before it could leave the plant.

“But federal officials consider this too late in the process and repeatedly cited the plants for serious safety failures,” the Post found.