The risks of living in today’s United States should not extend to eating meat purchased in supermarkets.
Yet staff shortages and other problems in the nation’s meat inspection system are understandably causing alarm among food safety advocates.
As documented in a report first published by KCPT’s Hale Center, and appearing recently in The Star, the system is in flux in anticipation of changes due to take place Oct. 24 in the poultry industry.
Those changes are worrisome: The U.S. Department of Agriculture will phase out 630 poultry inspector positions nationwide. The work will be taken over by employees of the processing plants.
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The rationale, officials say, is that few problems are detected by eyeballing each chicken carcass. Plant employees can take over that role, and inspectors will be freed up to control salmonella and other harmful bacteria.
But meat processing workers already are under pressure to process animals more quickly. Safety has rarely been a priority for the industry, and there is little reason to believe that will change.
Meanwhile, the USDA is holding meat inspector positions open in poultry and red meat plants so that the employees currently inspecting chicken can be reassigned after the new rules take effect.
Gaps are being filled by temporary inspectors whose training is suspect. Federal auditors have warned that inspectors are overworked and at risk of making mistakes.
None of this is good news for consumers. Federal agencies must not wait until the next meat illness outbreak to to shore up its inspection system.