Concerns about losing conservation programs are real. In its budget the Bush administration proposes to cap expenditures for the Conservation Security Program at 2 billion dollars over ten years. The White House says the move would save 5.2 billion dollars over that period of time. A bi-partisan group of farm state lawmakers is actively opposing that part of the Bush budget proposal.
The farm state lawmakers, along with consumer activists and meat packers, are also opposing the administration's recommendation to assess fees on packers to finance meat inspections. The unusual coalition believes food safety is a public health function and should be financed at public expense, not through user fees. But a study released this week provokes the issue of whether the public is getting its moneys worth.
A recent review of 35 large meat packing facilities by the U-S Department of Agriculture reveals problems with many of the Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point, or HACCP, plans at those facilities. The plans are meant to identify parts of the processing line where contamination would most likely occur and provide procedures to prevent and remove contaminated meat.
Under current law, processors must create contamination prevention strategies for each plant, implement those strategies, and keep records of contamination occurrences. The U-S-D-A then checks the records to make sure plants are following their own HACCP plans for contamination prevention. As a result, responsibility of meat safety is largely in the hands of processors.
Of the 35 large meat processing facilities reviewed, 60 percent had some shortcomings in their HACCP plans. The department has sent out letters threatening action if the plants are not in compliance in the next 30 days.
It is unclear what action the USDA is allowed to take. The agency contends it can withdraw marks of inspection or even suspend inspection, actions that would shut down a packing facility. But, a 2001 district court ruling states the agency does not always have the authority to withdraw inspectors from packing plants. Likewise, U-S law does not give the agency authority to mandate a recall of tainted meat, rather the ag department can only encourage packers to recall product in which contamination is suspected.