Is Something Rotten in the U.S. Meat Market?

By Hanson, Gayle M. B. | Insight on the News, December 30, 1996 | Go to article overview

Is Something Rotten in the U.S. Meat Market?


Hanson, Gayle M. B., Insight on the News


A federal meat inspector in Montana who has been threatened with dismissal unless he agrees to accept a transfer to another station, has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, seeking an injunction to stop the importation of meat from Canada. William Lehman, a self-described whistle-blower and a meat inspector for 30 years, claims that federal regulations have been tossed out the window at the United States/Canada border, virtually assuring that contaminated meat will make its way into the U.S. marketplace with deadly consequences.

"Meat-inspection laws are being ignored and violated on a daily basis," Lehman's lawsuit charges. "Given the egregious and ongoing violations of the laws and policies of this country, a tragedy of immense proportions is certain to occur. The public health and safety consequences which flow from these violations are widespread and deadly."

The USDA declined to discuss Lehman's lawsuit. However, USDA spokeswoman Jackie Knight asserted that the United States maintains a vigilant standard at the border and that the actual number of shipments rejected due to health concern is tiny "Fewer than 1 percent of the lots that are imported are rejected," she says, "and of those, the percentage rejected for health concerns is extremely small."

The trouble is that fewer and fewer are even being inspected. The United States imports nearly 2.5 billion pounds of meat annually, according to USDA statistics. Nearly 42 percent of that figure, more than 1 billion pounds, arrives from Canada. This meat comes over the border in lots, which can range in size from a 110-pound package of hamburger to a freight truck loaded with carcasses weighing 40,000 pounds. This year alone some 38,500 lots have been processed along the border, only 2,700 inspections have been performed and of these a full 116 lots have been rejected for a variety of reasons, including labeling and transportation damage. Assuming the sample is representative, this means that about 1,500 cargoes went through that should have been turned back.

Meat that is rejected at the border for human consumption either can be imported as animal food, destroyed on the spot or returned to Canada - from which the shippers simply can try again because the chances are good that they will miss the inspection next time. It is Lehman's contention that the current system of inspection contains holes so large that an entire truck of rotting hamburger could be driven through them.

Is it really all that serious? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as many as 4,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses result annually from the consumption of contaminated meat and poultry. In fact, the United States recently had to adopt a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or HACCP, plan to reduce E. coli and salmonella contamination of meat and poultry products.

Lehman argues that increased vigilance at the border must be maintained to promote food safety. "The point is that millions of pounds of meat are being imported into the United States without being inspected," Lehman's lawsuit argues. "I have personally seen, at Sweetgrass [Inspection Station], boxes of imported meat which have gone uninspected certified as USDA inspected [on their way] to California to a known purveyor of ground beef to the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant chain."

Lehman's complaints have stimulated Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns to request both an investigation into USDA border-inspection practices and a Government Accounting Office investigation. "Border inspector Bill Lehman and the USDA are telling two very different stories about the safety of imported meat," Burns said. "However, this is not the first time I have heard concerns over these imports. When human health is involved, I believe it is best to err on the side of caution and fully investigate gate this matter."

Burns, a member of the Senate Small Business Committee, sent a letter to Sen. …

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