What do pharmaceuticals, automobiles, reusable plastic water bottles, and roller coasters have in common? All are manufactured or operated under conditions that are inadequately regulated by the federal government, whose job it is to protect consumers from corporations valuing their bottom lines above individuals’ safety. As the New York Times reported in mid-December, we may now add meat production to this list, too, since at least one “meatpacking firm produces as much as two tons a day of pork contaminated by fecal matter, urine, bile, hair, intestinal contents, or diseased tissue[.]”
The Times article explains that the current inspection program, called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), dates back to 1993, “when more than 500 American were made sick by E. coli traced to tainted hamburgers.” The American Meat Institute then rolled out in 2004 a microbiological method for ensuring the safety of its products that relied very heavily on meatpackers themselves: “the USDA would be relegated to spot-checking selected carcasses.” This allowed Hormel, one of the largest meat producers in the country, to ramp up their operations from about 7,000 hogs per shift to close to 11,000.
It became clear even to Hormel’s own quality-assurance employees that this new method was not effective enough. Following USDA rules, government regulators must “manually check the glands in the head of every hog, palpate the lymph nodes to check for tuberculosis nodules, feel the intestines for parasites, and the kidneys for signs of inflammation or hidden masses.” However, one former Hormel employee reported that production moved so quickly that he was doubtful the lone USDA inspector on site could do more than a brief visual check. Users of the new computerized system claim that from 2011 to 2013 the system failed so many times that they sent “at least 100 million pounds of uninspected meat to market.”
Only a year ago, the USDA released a report revealing that compliance with federal guidelines was so rare that three of the five plants that took part in the inspection program were among the nation’s ten worst (out of over 600 plants in the country). In a follow-up report, a USDA deputy administrator wrote that from 2006 to 2010 the rate of fecal contamination was “consistently higher” and “often much higher” than in plants using the old manual inspection method.
With the new system in place in a number of facilities, figures leveled out around five to seven contaminated hogs for every 10,000 processed. The article points out that though this might sound low, the overall numbers are so high that this may amount to as much as two tons: “it means that an operation the size of Hormel’s would ‘approve’ about 4,000 pounds of contaminated pork a day.”
What is perhaps most troubling about this whole inspection program is that it failed to collect data from plants not using the computerized system. This means that we have no comparable data that might indicate conclusively which method is more effective. Corporations that are left to police the safety of their own products have shown time and time again that they do not have the health and wellbeing of their customers in mind. It is unconscionable that the very food we eat–despite bearing a USDA approval tag–may have never been checked for dangerous contaminants. Since food is considered a “product” under the law, injuries or harm caused by it could potentially give rise to a negligence claim or even a product liability claim. Since regulators have failed to protect individuals, it may be left to attorneys and their clients to ensure the safety of our food and the elimination of as much contamination as possible.