WASHINGTON – As alarm bells sounded for the second-largest hamburger recall in history, the nation’s top food safety officials were in Miami setting the “course for the next 100 years of food safety.”

The fact that so many U.S. Department of Agriculture executives were in Florida studying the future when New Jersey-based Topps Meats Co. was scrambling, very much in the present, to recall 21.7 million pounds of hamburger patties – a full year’s production run – has rankled some USDA inspectors and food safety advocates, who see it as a symbol of the department’s attitude toward food safety enforcement.

Several USDA inspectors said in interviews that their workloads are doubling or tripling as they take on the duties of inspectors who have left the department, not to be replaced. The force has been reduced dramatically in recent years as vacancies are left unfilled.

“We’ve been short the whole time I’ve been in,” said one veteran inspector who asked to not be named. “We don’t have enough inspectors, but we have too much management. The inspectors are short all the time and getting spread thinner and thinner.”

The crisis began last month when three consumers in New York and Florida fell ill from E. coli poisoning. Soon at least 32 people were sick. The Topps recall, though, began a full 18 days after the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) first confirmed E. coli bacteria in a Topps hamburger.

The undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, Richard Raymond, later said, “We can do better.”

FSIS – which regulates meat, poultry and egg production – says it had 7,200 inspectors in 1992 and 7,450 today. But Stan Painter, an inspector and a union representative for the American Federal of Government Employees, which represents the inspectors, said the actual number is closer to 6,500.

The difference, he said, are unfilled vacancies that FSIS permanently carries. “There are about 1,000 vacancies,” Painter said. “It’s steadily gotten worse.”

FSIS did not respond to written questions submitted by the Chicago Tribune for this article. In an Oct. 4 teleconference with reporters, Raymond said, “We are looking into the FSIS inspection activities in this plant in order to ensure that our inspection work force has the tools, the training, the data and the oversight to ensure public health protection.”

Under the federal Meat Inspection Act, USDA inspectors are required to examine animals that are “prepared at any slaughtering, meat-canning, salting, packing, rendering, or similar establishment,” and intended for use as food. Inspectors put a USDA stamp on products that pass inspection, and reject items that don’t pass.

About 6,000 food production facilities are visited by USDA inspectors, but some are so large they require several inspectors. From April to June of this year, inspectors examined 34 million “livestock carcasses” and condemned 54,546 of them, according to FSIS records. For poultry the numbers jump to an astounding 2.3 billion carcasses inspected and 11 million condemned animals.

The legal requirements for inspections, and the reduced force of inspectors, means that the inspection goals have not been met for years, according to inspectors. They complain that the workload is unrealistic, reducing their duties to cursory checks of company records, not the physical examination of meat, poultry and eggs.

“Inspectors are not . . . in the vast majority of processing plants, full time,” said Felicia Nestor, a senior policy analyst for Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based food safety group. “For the most part, inspectors at processing plants are on patrols, meaning they cover a number of plants.”

Thus, she said, the patrols are counted as an inspection because of the possibility that inspectors could show up.

Questions about the size of the inspection force have come amid a sharp increase in E. coli -related ground beef recalls over previous years, a phenomenon that has baffled USDA officials. In the wake of the Topps case, they are devising a food safety checklist that each of the nation’s estimated 1,500 meat packing plants must complete.

Industry representatives point out that incidents of E. coli had declined for several years before increasing this year. E. coli has actually “declined something in the order of 72 percent over the last five years,” said Jim Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation. “It’s still at a very low rate, statistically.”

Hodges said the meat industry has adopted safety measures, such as steam and vinegar washes, to rid carcasses of E. coli.

At Topps, a single USDA inspector was assigned to the Elizabeth, N.J., plant, which produced more ground beef patties than any other U.S. meat processor.

But that inspector in recent years has also been given responsibility for five meat processing plants, according to Nestor. That means spending one hour and 36 minutes each day in each plant, she said.

“This is a problem we’re been pointing out to them forever,” Nestor said. “There are vacancies and shortages all over the country. In a lot of places, the patrol assignments are doubled and tripled up.”

For FSIS, the problem isn’t a new one. Following the E. coli contamination and recall of 19 million pounds of ground beef made by ConAgra in 2002, the Department of Agriculture’s inspector general conducted an investigation at the request of Congress.

The resulting September 2003 report concluded that it was “FSIS policies that effectively limited the documents the inspectors could review and the enforcement actions they were allowed to take.” The agency, the inspector general found, “needs to be more proactive in its oversight.”

It was a tragic case of E. coli contamination in 1993 that led to reforms that inspectors today say their agency is reluctant to enforce. The regulatory changes occurred after E. coli poisoning in Jack in the Box restaurant hamburgers killed four children and sickened many others.

Escherichia coli, a bacteria that lives in some cattle’s intestines, can find its way into meat during the slaughter process, usually when fecal material comes in contact with a meat carcass. In humans, poisoning of this strain of E. coli can cause bloody diarrhea and urine, severe stomach cramps, and kidney damage and failure that can lead to death.

After the Jack in the Box case, the USDA required each meat plant to adopt a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan. The plans allowed companies to design their own food safety measures, usually around the need to process beef quickly.

The hope was that meat packing plants would adopt better practices. But inspectors complain today that their jobs have now been reduced to monitoring a company’s hazard analysis plan, instead of enforcing USDA’s own inspection regulations.

“They (meat packing companies) write their own plan,” said one inspector, who asked to remain anonymous. “They write everything for themselves. We’re “monitoring’ that now.

“It’s just a joke. We mostly check paper now. You can put anything you want on paper.”

(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-13-07 1451EDT

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