WASHINGTON — U.S. meat plants that failed government food safety guidelines still sold hamburgers and chicken to consumers, despite assurances from the Bush administration that the plants would be shut, according to a draft report by congressional investigators.
The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found significant holes in how the Department of Agriculture supervised and enforced regulations at meat-processing plants, according to the draft report, which has not been made public.
A copy of the 18-page report was obtained Wednesday from the Consumer Federation of America.
Government data have linked contaminated food to more than 76 million U.S. illnesses and 5,000 deaths annually.
The USDA in April reported a rise in salmonella in chicken and turkey from 2000 to 2001.
USDA inspectors discovered dozens of plants with high levels of salmonella and fecal contamination last year, but the companies were allowed to continue to conduct business, the report said.
The USDA said that many of the report's findings were known and that officials were working to correct the problems.
The GAO reviewed 68 USDA enforcement cases from last year. From these cases, USDA inspectors informed 60 plants that they would have to stop meat production because of food safety violations.
However, in 95% of the cases, the USDA did not follow through with its threat.
The USDA also randomly tests meat products for the deadly bacteria salmonella, which kills 600 Americans annually.
For plants that failed two sets of salmonella testing, the USDA took an average of three months to begin reviewing whether the plants had corrected the problem.
It took an additional three months for the inspectors to contact the companies about their assessments, according to the report.