You state in your editorial (May 30), "Recipe for Filth" that it takes a strong stomach to be a slaughterhouse inspector with conditions as bad as they are in Southern California. Well, it took a strong stomach to read your editorial and the accompanying stories by John Kendall, which imply that our review of the inspection program in the area was a cover-up, that inspectors neglect their jobs, and that consumers cannot have confidence in their meat and poultry.
From the start, we admitted there was a problem with the direction and management of the inspection program in Southern California. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiated the review--with no prompting from Congress, the media or interest groups. We released the final report to the public as soon as it was completed last march. This is a cover-up?
The impression is left that the review was not inclusive. We reviewed more than half of the plants in the area, interviewed more than 200 inspectors and supervisors and more than 200 industry representatives, and allowed all the opportunity to talk to us confidentially--about anything. We are confident that the review uncovered the significant problems in the area.
USDA does not deny responsibility for many of the conditions found in Southern California. We had problems within our inspection program that did not allow us to adequately police these plants--this we admit. Several important parts of the system were broken, and now we're fixing them. Immediately following the review, we dispatched a problem-solving team to the area. So far, they have worked with officials in the area to redistribute the workload in plants so that supervision is more effective. They've placed problem plants under more intense regulation. They're working more closely with supervisors to ensure that the job gets done correctly. And these actions are not necessarily all that we'll do. We may find as time goes on that there are additional actions that are necessary. Furthermore, the office of the inspector general is free to conduct its own independent investigations of criminal allegations, including charges of bribery.
If blame is to be placed for the situation in Southern California, let's place it equitably. It's true that the federal government has a responsibility to regulate the meat and poultry industries. We inspect products to ensure that they are safe, wholesome and accurately labeled. But the industry has the ultimate responsibility to produce safe, wholesome product. Our job is to police the industry to make sure they do so, but we can't be there every minute of the day. A meat plant operator who is determined to break the rules will find a way to do so.
We would like to be able to permanently shut down plants that deserve to be shut down, but we don't have the legal authority to do so without a lengthy administrative process--and then only for certain types of infractions. Yes, we can suspend operations temporarily until a problem is corrected, but once it's corrected, the plant can resume operations. That is why we have asked Congress to pass a bill that would expand our authority to withdraw inspection from problem plants.
Despite The Times' assertions, USDA's inspection program is not the victim of deregulation. How can it be when we have more than 8,000 inspectors stationed at every meat and poultry plant in the country? If you must find us guilty of something, find us guilty of continuing a modernization program that began in the mid-1970s under the Carter Administration. The program has succeeded in making better use of resources, but there have been no changes in the laws or regulations that would compromise the safety of the meat and poultry supply.
Let's also put the problem in Southern California into proper perspective. We have an inspection system that makes 96% of the 7,500 plants in the United States substantially comply with regulations. We also have an internal review team to spot the other 4% which in most cases are the target of administrative or legal action by USDA. We think that's a good record, and one we'll put up against any other regulatory program.
And finally, having been an inspector myself, I am deeply concerned that a disservice has been done to our work force. Our inspectors do a good job; they do not sit by idly while bad meat leaves the plant. And they sometimes must do that job under extremely adverse conditions. In fairness to them, I must set the record straight.
DONALD L. HOUSTON
Houston is administrator of the Food and Safety Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.