WASHINGTON -- The recent recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef highlights the problem with the government's heavy and growing reliance on industry to police itself: Companies have too much leeway to overlook contamination, and inspectors don't have the time or power to catch violations before suspect food gets sold, according to government inspectors and food safety experts.
Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., withdrew the ground beef last month after it was caught on videotape ignoring requirements designed to prevent meat from diseased animals from entering the food supply.
"The video of the Hallmark plant is evidence of what can happen when packing plants are left to police themselves without the government oversight they need," said Trent Berhow, vice chairman of Berhow Inspection Locals, which represents 6,500 U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors.
"When the company is in charge of creating their own records and doing their own food safety checks, they're not going to find problems themselves," he said.
The federal government has been giving various sectors of the food industry more safety responsibilities as a way to prevent bacterial outbreaks, not just react to them. After a string of recalls of fresh produce, peanut butter and pet food, the Bush administration proposed last year that the practice be expanded even more broadly, to companies in the United States and suppliers abroad.
But agency inspectors, food safety experts and former government officials fear that there will be more episodes like the beef recall without the close monitoring and tough sanctions that they say have been lacking.
"We are fortunate more hasn't gone wrong," said William K. Hubbard, a former associate commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration who helped develop its preventive programs, which he says have been weakened by tight budgets. "I hate to say it, but it may take a national food scare for people to realize you can't just have cops catching people when things go wrong."
Government officials say the effectiveness of the approach can be seen in declining rates of infection caused by foodborne bacteria, and that they make sure companies fulfill their obligations through rigorous inspections, frequent audits and tough penalties, including as many as 100 plant suspensions a year.
"We do more suspensions and threats of suspension now ... than we did under the old regime in the 1990s and earlier," said Kenneth E. Petersen, a USDA assistant administrator. "So, when folks say, 'Industry is self-policing,' look at the enforcement powers we're exercising today."
Industry officials describe the recall as an overreaction to an unusual and isolated failure of a company to abide by government requirements and even tougher industry guidelines - and of inspectors to catch it. Most companies, industry officials say, go beyond their responsibilities, knowing that their success depends on it.
"Clearly, what we have in Hallmark/Westland is an anomaly, an extreme circumstance," J. Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive officer of the American Meat Institute, a leading industry group, said in a conference call with reporters. "I don't think it requires a systematic change in how we run our plants" or how government inspectors monitor them.
The problems in Chino involved animal-handling rules requiring companies to alert government veterinarians when a cow falls down right before it is to be slaughtered. A video secretly recorded by the Humane Society of the United States showed plant workers moving downed cows with electric prods and forklifts before slaughter, without notifying anyone.
While no one was sickened by the ground beef, inspectors say it is only a matter of time before an unscrupulous company hurts consumers after flouting its food safety obligations because it didn't fear being caught.
"What happened out in California was a good example of a plant sneaking things by," said William G. Hughes, lawyer for the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, which has 950 members. "You have to have sufficient inspection staff to guarantee that nothing is going to go wrong."
The government began moving to give food companies more responsibility for food safety after an E. coli outbreak in 1993 killed four children and sickened hundreds of others who had eaten tainted hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants. Now, companies that produce meat, poultry, seafood and juice must run a system of preventive controls.
Under this approach, companies identify critical points in their food production processes where bacteria could enter, develop plans for preventing contamination and keep close watch to make sure the steps are working and products are safe.
Meanwhile, government inspectors are supposed to make sure that companies are following their plans and that the plans are working. They also sample food to check levels of E. coli, salmonella and other bacteria, and they conduct deeper audits of plants.
Since its adoption over the past decade, the approach has appeared to help reduce the incidence of bacteria found in various products, experts say.
Even tough critics of the federal food safety system say the trust-but-verify approach is the right one to balance the government's limited resources with Americans' voracious appetites.
"There's a lot of room for improvement, but I don't think there's a lot of alternatives," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The industry plays a vital role in ensuring the safety of its products, and the government's role should be to ensure that's done correctly."
Government officials say their monitoring is strong and that they have been making improvements to strengthen it.
"What we're doing had an impact," said the USDA's Petersen, noting declining rates of infection from listeria as an example. USDA sampling of meat and poultry indicates that bacterial contamination has declined overall since its preventive approach took full effect in 2000.
But current and former employees say the string of food scares shows the department is trusting too much and verifying too little. Some unscrupulous companies now try to take advantage, inspectors say, by refusing to identify critical points in their production processes, developing inadequate prevention plans and failing to report problems.
"In the beginning they did," said Stan Painter, chairman of the union for USDA inspectors. "Then they realized they didn't have to."
Painter said inspectors need to spend less time reviewing company paperwork and more time watching plants operate, and they need to have the authority to slow or even halt operations if they need a better look.