Inspectors Have Seconds to Spot Disease on Production Lines

Federal law permits companies to process up to 390 cattle or 964 hogs an hour.

By Teresa Lostroh and Rachel Albin

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Government inspectors who stand on production lines and physically examine every animal carcass before it becomes cuts of meat have seconds to spot signs of disease and feces before a carcass goes by.

“I read an article the other day that some congressman said they were going to cut the (inspection) budget because the product was 99.9 percent safe,” said Delmer Jones, who was a federal chicken inspector for 44 years before he retired in 2003. “If only these people were required to stand on one of those lines.”

Inspectors for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are in slaughterhouses every hour of every day they operate. They look at chickens, turkeys, hogs and cattle for fecal contamination, signs of tuberculosis, cancer, infections, parasites and an array of other conditions that make meat unhealthy or unappealing to eat.

Federal law permits companies to process up to 390 cattle or 964 hogs an hour. It’s standard for chickens to be processed at 140 birds a minute, but the law doesn’t explicitly mention that rate. (Related .pdf document: Federal regulations)

Rather, speed regulations are broken down by how many chickens each inspector can look at in one minute. According to regulations, inspectors are allowed to review up to 35 chickens per minute.

When plants process 140 birds a minute, four inspectors are on the line, and they get less than two seconds to look at the inside and outside of each featherless carcass hanging in front of them.

Jones, former head of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, compared inspecting chickens at that speed to examining a plane as it touches down and takes off again.

“It’s completely impossible,” he said.

Jones and current union leader Stan Painter, an inspector in Alabama, said carcasses move by too fast for inspectors to catch all contamination, including the feces that carry dangerous pathogens such as E. coli O157 and salmonella.

In plants that process 140 birds a minute, one inspector checks about 14,700 chickens daily.

“It’s just like running a marathon in these plants,” Jones said. “We run a marathon every day.”

For cattle, up to 13 inspectors man stations for the heads, organs and half-carcasses, and they rotate spots throughout the day, making it difficult to determine by law how much time they have to do each job. But inspectors who spoke to News21 said they had between six and 20 seconds, depending on the stations.

“It doesn’t sound like a lot (of time), but these inspectors do this day in and day out,” said John McConnaughhay, a frontline supervisor and public health veterinarian in Nebraska. “It’s adequate time for them to do these procedures.”

Related video:
Inside a Slaughterhouse: Start in the post-mortem inspection station.

Inspectors eye the outsides of chickens for tumors, bruises, lesions and broken legs or wings. They check inside for scabs, fluid in the air sacs and enlarged kidneys. The rest of the organs are looked over for discoloration and swelling.

The process for cattle varies by plant, but it’s common for inspectors to examine the heads at one location on the production line, cutting the cheek muscles and paying special attention to the lymph nodes, where abnormalities can indicate disease.

At another point, different inspectors cut open and feel organs for cysts, parasites, lesions, discoloration and inflammation. At the final station, other inspectors check the outside of the suspended half-carcasses for feces. They also feel the meat and look inside for abnormal kidneys, lymph nodes and muscles. (Related Story: How Feces Enters Food Supply)

Food Safety and Inspection Service representatives wouldn’t clarify how much time inspectors have with each carcass to complete these steps. A district manager and a spokesman didn’t answer specific questions and pointed reporters to the regulations. The only response the agency offered was through the “askFSIS” feature on its website that allows consumers to submit questions.

A staffer responding in an email wanted to know the motivation for the question and said, “In slaughter operations inspection personnel are responsible for conducting their inspection duties regardless of the concern for time. Operations vary significantly and it is difficult to designate seconds per carcass.” In a later email, the staffer said, “I am not aware that FSIS ‘tracks’ this information.”

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