Food inspection: safe, not sorry


Almost everyone in American agriculture, from farmers to ranchers to the top executives of the biggest transnational grain trading and meatpacking firms, loves to say the United States is home to the cheapest, safest food supply in the world.

Of course, the global commodity slingers love cheap. It’s the yeast that makes their dough rise because, in a cutthroat business defined by uniformity, cheap sells.

Cheap buisness

Farmers and ranchers, on the other hand, aren’t in the cheap business. Cheap isn’t an ally; it’s the enemy. So why brag that America has “cheap” food when cheap carries no benefit other than being, well, cheap?
The definition of safe food, like cheap, is relative; it’s value lies in the eye of the beholder.

For example, from Jan. 10 through March 7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service issued 20 recalls on food products that totaled 12,569,000 lbs.

Millions recalled

You read that right: USDA has recalled an astounding 12.6 million pounds of various beef, egg, chicken, pork or meat-containing products due to unsafe or questionable quality in the first nine weeks this year.

In 2013, USDA recalled 11,992,236 lbs. of meat, poultry and other foods for safety reasons. That, too, is an astounding number. But here are two equally staggering aspects to it.

First, according to USDA data, only 534,886 lbs. of the almost 12 million lbs. of recalled food was actually returned. That means 5,732 tons of it either remains out here or was consumed. Yikes.

Second, the amount recalled by USDA does not include the food recalled by the Food and Drug Administration.

For example, the “Enforcement Report-Week of March 5, 2014” on FDA’s website, lists 50 or so recalls for items as diverse as cheese, cactus leaves and ready-made waffles. (Links to documents are posted at

Fifty; 5-0. For just one week.

So, the “safest” food in the world?

Safest food?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t think so. According to its latest data, from 2011, “…the overall annual estimate of the total burden of disease due to contaminated food consumed in the United States is 47.8 million illnesses, 127,839 hospitalizations, and 3,037 deaths.”

And, reports the CDC, already “the 2012 data showed a lack of recent progress in reducing foodborne infections and highlight the need for improved prevention.”


So, if unsafe food sickens one in six Americans every year and the system that delivers so much illness continues to show a “lack of recent progress,” why is USDA charging ahead with implementation of inspection regimes that promise fewer federal inspectors and faster slaughter line speeds?

On March 6, more than 100 small farm and food advocate groups wrote the White House to ask President Barack Obama that very question. All want to recall USDA’s pending “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection” rule that will “allow poultry company employees to do the job currently done by 800 USDA inspectors.”

Increase speed

Of the many changes the new rule ushers in, one—increasing slaughter line speeds—will mean that company employees will “inspect” up to 175 birds per minute compared to the 35 birds-per-minute now examined by USDA inspectors.

If that sounds like a sick idea, wait until you taste it.

Even worse is that USDA and its Big Ag Biz constituents view this “chicken” change as the first step to implement similar changes in cattle and hog slaughter. Seriously.

World’s safest food

This is not just bad news to consumers who are increasingly made ill by an overworked, under-staffed food inspection system but also to farmers and ranchers who claim the nation has the world’s safest food.

If so, then America’s most trusted food providers, farmers and ranchers, need to advocate for stronger—not weaker—food inspection rules. And, yes, that costs money.
But making one out of every six customers sick is too costly already.

(The Farm and Food File is published weekly throughout the U.S. and Canada. Past columns, news and events are posted at Contact Alan Guebert at
© 2014 ag comm

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.


  1. BULLCRAP. These numbers shown are EXTREMELY exaggerated and misleading. First of all, they are SUSPECTED numbers-NOT verified. I have actually witnessed people have dysentary and nausia and without ANY testing be told “it must be something you ate”-it is EXTREMELY wrong to have these cases labeled as food related when there is NO proof and they may be caused by contacted contagious disease (viral). I even have attending patients in a hospital for over two years-NO deaths from food related illness, and VERY few suspected sickness from food-the patients were sent home WITHOUT being tested-the causative agent just as likely to be non-food related viruses-and ALL recouperated fine. I personally know of NO ONE that has been positively tested sickened from food-with the exception of one who contracted trichanosis from “free-roaming” pork imported from SOUTH AMERICA-if one out of every six people DID become sick from food, surely I would have known SOMEONE.

    That being said, it is also WRONG to blame the animal product producers when MOST food illness is from plant based food. There are so many lazy people in this country that are on welfare and refuse to work that foreign workers are brought in, many who do not use the same hygiene methods we are used to. I have seen many times these workers refuse to use portable toilets (amply provide by produce farmers along with wash stations) and go into the bushes to have bowel movements then return to pick produce-no hands washed, no toilet paper. Besides in the field, ALL food can be-and IS sometimes-contaminated AFTER processing while it is being cut and packaged. Bottom line, MUCH of what food IS ACTUALLY contaminated comes from workers-NOT the animals, and no amount of inspections will fix that.

    Lastly, the overwhelming amount of food sickness is from improperly cooked and stored food that has been mixed with many ingredients-salads set out for hours in warm weather. food left on counters, and retail sales of food past its “sell-by” date. It is outrageous to blame animal producers when hands down the OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of what food born illness ACTUALLY does exist has NOTHING to do with the farmers !!! NO- we do NOT need anymore rules and regulations, we need more personal responsibility from individuals along with a complete HALT to blame others-if food was properly washed, cooked and served, there would be NO food related sickness.


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