Feds to monitor the meat Beginning April 1, U.S. to keep eye on state's small packers

January 14, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

Come April 1, someone else's hand will squeeze the spleen, slice the glands and stamp the carcasses as the steers are slaughtered at Maurer and Miller meat processors in Manchester.

State inspector George Davies plans to take up a new career anyway, which is a good thing, because the state, in a cost-cutting move, plans next spring to turn over to the federal government the work now done by Davies and 38 other full-time inspectors.

Maryland is one of 28 states that still inspect small, in-state meat and poultry operations. The federal Food Safety and Inspection Service, which already inspects the larger operations that do business across state lines, will apply the same standards. But some country butchers who live by those rules expect they may have to adjust to different interpretations.

"We're required to be equal to or better than the federal standards," Davies said, though interpretation is what counts. "Interpretation is a big part of my job. Everything is a judgment call. Nothing is 100 percent."

George J. Maurer, who runs Maurer and Miller with his family, worries about how those judgments might change under federal inspection.

The federal government provided for state inspections primarily because it didn't want to bother with small, intra-state businesses like his, Maurer said. His fear at this point is fear of the unknown.

His business, which kills about 18 head of cattle on a typical slaughter day, is one of 52 intrastate businesses under state inspection. The state watches over 24 others that are under federal regulation but use state inspectors. The state also does sanitary inspections on 25 custom plants that deal entirely in "custom" slaughter for private customers who bring in animals to be killed and processed for their own use.

Davies is one of 39 full-time state inspectors rotating among these businesses. He does his job wearing a white lab coat, a rubber apron and a plastic hard hat. The instruments of his job are a meat hook, a sharp knife and his senses, which probe the slaughtered animals for signs of disease, injury and decay.

At Maurer and Miller last week, he watched killing-floor workers shoot a bolt into each steer's head, hoist the unconscious animal by the hind legs, slit its throat to drain the blood and skin the carcass.

His first inspection station in the process is the skinned, severed head.

"I can tell if this animal has a cold. I can tell if he has a broken jaw. I can tell if he has cancer," Davies said, while making wafer-thin slices through the fat inside to check the glands for blood, swelling, cysts and discoloration.

It's an aesthetic experience, as he comes upon one healthy-looking set of glands after another. "Here's a real nice pair of them," he said. Reaching inside a hollowed carcass hanging nearby, he grasped the kidneys -- bunched in a firm, nut-brown bouquet -- and pronounced them "beautiful."

Next to the carcass, Davies plunged his hands into a tub of the animal's guts for inspection of internal organs. Slicing through the reddish-brown heart in search of tapeworm and cysts, Davies said, "It's a nice clean, wholesome heart."

Of course, some animals turn out to be unsavory. Between October 1989 and September 1990, the latest statistics available, state inspectors withheld 385 animal carcasses statewide for veterinary examinations out of about 281,900 livestock inspected -- about a tenth of 1 percent. Of those withheld, 289 were condemned, 80 were later passed and 16 were passed with cooking restrictions.

The inspectors also check for honesty in labeling and in weights and measures. Inspectors have the power to stop a plant from beginning its slaughter if necessary until any sanitary violations are fixed.

Davies, who lives in Reisterstown, is 35 and a red meat-eater. After 14 years as an inspector, Davies is making new career plans he won't disclose as yet.

When the federal takeover occurs, the affected businesses may incur new costs as federal work rules take effect for inspections. Unlike state inspectors, who can receive compensatory time if they have to work a long day within a 40-hour week, federal inspectors work to an eight-hour day. Any extra hours worked must be paid by the business as overtime, at a rate of about $27 an hour.

Dr. Stephen Wolford, who directs the state inspection program, said these costs could add to the price that consumers pay in the restaurants and retail outlets supplied by plants now under state inspection. Small operations like Maurer and Miller sell to businesses such as a bowling alley restaurants and to institutions such as a nearby nursing home.

The state is ending Wolford's program, for which it has split the cost with the federal government, in the hope of saving $125,000 in the remainder of fiscal 1991 and $616,000 in fiscal 1992.

For the federal government, however, "it's going to create an expense they haven't budgeted for," Wolford said. "The taxpayer doesn't save any money on this."

The change won't be official until Gov. William Donald Schaefer sends a letter to the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service asking for a takeover. But Dr. Lester Nordyke, the service's director of federal-state relations, said that once it receives the letter his agency is obligated to assume the state inspections.

Although he couldn't predict how many state inspectors might be hired into the federal program, when other states have made a similar change, about 70 percent of the existing inspectors have been hired, he said.

While acknowledging that state-inspected businesses may be apprehensive about answering to a new authority in Washington, Nordyke expects that the plants now under state inspection "would have no problem meeting the standards because they are the same."

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