BEFORE the government implements the first major changes to food inspection in a decade, serious questions about the new meat and poultry inspections must be answered.
Chief among these is how the new policy, which will result in fewer plant inspections, will make food safer.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to intensify its efforts with high-risk processing plants and pay less attention to plants with less risk and better records of handling meat and poultry. The idea has merit, but its uncertain application and outcome has consumer advocates and others rightly concerned.
"We're just putting resources where the risk is greatest, and those plants that demonstrate excellent control will get less of our resources," explained Richard Raymond, the department's top food safety official. But consumer groups fear budget considerations may be driving the agency's inspection decisions.
They worry about the roughly 76 million people who get sick from food poisoning in the United States each year and wonder if the proposed inspection changes are meant to save money instead of lives. Agriculture Department officials insist the government won't save money on the risk-based inspections yet concede cost-savings could come later if the changes are extended to slaughter plants.
But after recent public scares of different food contaminations from spinach and lettuce to large batches of ConAgra-made peanut butter, people need reassurance about food safety, not cost-effective inspection overhauls.
Also in need of reassurance are labor and industry groups. Food safety inspectors are anxious about being overloaded with too many plants to inspect under the new changes. Meat companies like the concept of risk-based inspections but complain the government is already too inconsistent with its inspection and citations approach.
Other skeptics foresee daily inspections eventually being eliminated altogether at some plants. Mr. Raymond claims there are no plans to scrap daily inspections now, but he raised the possibility of future "virtual" inspections where plants could fax records in lieu of an inspector's visit.
Submitting records by fax?
The problems with that fallback system are plainly obvious.
As long as meat and poultry account for large shares of related germ outbreaks and illnesses, tough government inspections of processing and slaughtering operations is critical.
Certainly plants with repeat violations, or food products with higher inherent risks than others, require more intense scrutiny. But no inspection changes should come at the expense of a thorough food safety program.
The Agriculture Department must resist any inclination to rush through a complex new system of food inspection before key objections are settled - and the evidence of improved food safety is substantial.