USDA resists Congress' push

Official denies more tools needed

April 18, 2008|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration resisted calls from Congress to add more inspectors and new technologies to improve oversight of the nation's slaughterhouses, saying yesterday that neither was necessary to do the job adequately.

The exchange, during a hearing before a House subcommittee, reflected continuing fallout from the nation's largest beef recall earlier this year.

Richard Raymond, undersecretary for food safety, told committee members that the U.S Department of Agriculture has enough food inspectors after hiring 194 last year.

Videotaping meat plant operations, another suggestion from Congress, would be costly and difficult to implement, he said.

Raymond said that reviews of 18 plants providing beef to federal programs didn't uncover the kind of mistreatment that prompted the recall in February, suggesting that the scare was an aberration.

His testimony angered members of the House Domestic Policy subcommittee, who said the recall of beef slaughtered in the Hallmark/Westland plant in Chino, Calif., showed the need for improvements.

"We're trying to look for solutions. If you would work with us, that would help," said Rep. Diane E. Watson, a Democrat from California.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, also expressed his displeasure.

"The time is long overdue to strengthen the practices at the USDA, and to explore new methods of oversight, such as video surveillance," he said.

The beef was recalled after the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video showing the mistreatment of sick cows at the Westland/Hallmark plant in Chino, Calif.

The video showed plant workers using electric prods and forklifts to move cows that had fallen down before slaughter and violating government rules designed to protect the food supply from mad cow disease.

"I believe the egregious behavior we saw on these tapes was isolated, and we are doing the audits to confirm that," Raymond said. Besides the plant inspections, the Agriculture Department has stepped up monitoring for mistreatment, he said.

But citing the Humane Society footage, Rep. Darrell E. Issa, a Republican from California, echoed support for hiring more food inspectors and deploying video and other technologies. "There is no space between us on these issues," he told Democrats.

Many food companies already deploy video cameras in their plants, and experts say there's anecdotal evidence of benefits.

Stan Painter, who chairs the federal food inspectors' union, said inspectors are swamped with work.

Painter said that video monitoring would help deter slaughterhouses from mistreating animals but that hiring more inspectors was even more vital.

"The shortages are putting consumers at risk because there are not enough of us to do our job," he said.

Lisa Shames, a congressional researcher with the Government Accountability Office, said food inspectors at plants she recently visited "told us they were stretched thin."

jonathan.rockoff@baltsun.com

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