Washington The government says its overburdened meat inspectors spend too much time on jobs that processors could do themselves, such as checking scales and monitoring the water content of meat products, and wants to focus more on stopping harmful bacteria.
The Agriculture Department, which has 7,500 inspectors, is responsible for regulating a number of consumer protection rules that officials say have little or nothing to do with food safety. The department is considering allowing inspectors to spend less time doing tests to enforce those rules.
"We're trying to make sure that our resources are devoted to food safety. That's our first priority," said Phil Derfler, associate deputy administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The department devotes the equivalent of 25 to 50 full-time workers each year to check whether chicken and turkey carcasses absorbed excessive amounts of water when they were chilled after slaughter.
Inspectors also are responsible for checking the accuracy of nutrition labels and enforcing rules on the content of meat products. For example, fresh pork sausage can be no more than 50 percent fat, Italian sausage must contain at least one of two spices -- fennel or anise -- and barbecued meat must be prepared with dry heat from burning wood or coals.
In addition, inspectors perform thousands of tests each year on scales in processing plants to make sure they are working properly. Although inspectors frequently find problems, officials say that's not necessarily because companies are cheating; it may be because the plants are leaving it up to USDA to make sure they are weighing products accurately.
"The government should be supervising the industry's enforcing of these other consumer protections rather than doing the industry's job," Caroline Smith DeWaal, a meat-safety expert with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, said Wednesday.
USDA plans to work on a set of formal proposals later this year to overhaul its inspectors' responsibilities. A public comment period on the issue ended earlier this week.
"We're not letting (processors) police themselves. We may be going about reshaping how we police them, but we're not going to let them police themselves," the USDA's Derfler said.
The Agriculture Department regulates meat, poultry and egg products. All other foods are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and state agencies.