Mississippi meat production and processing facilities often violate consumer protection laws, with some of them doing so repeatedly. This is the key finding from an extensive investigation by the Clarion-Ledger, which looked into records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service database where enforcement action against federally inspected facilities is recorded.
Over the past 10 years, the 50 slaughterhouses and meat-poultry processing plants in Mississippi, owned by 35 companies, violated regulations 69 times. These resulted in the USDA taking 31 enforcement actions, the Clarion-Ledger stated. Some of the meat processing plants violated safety regulations, while others operated in unsanitary conditions, but in most a combination of both was detected.
These figures represented the most serious problems but minor violations were not listed in the records. The news source claimed that "tens of thousands of smaller violations" took place over the course of the decade, according to a report published by the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG).
Although the Clarion-Ledger has requested to see the database containing information about the minor violations, so far there has been no response from the USDA.
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Figures revealed that the biggest offender in Mississippi was Peco Foods. The 10th largest U.S. poultry company is based in Alabama but has four slaughterhouses and one processing plant in Mississippi. Its five facilities accounted for a total of 12 violations and five enforcement actions between 2004 and 2007. Nearly half of the recorded failures to meet regulations were detected at the Sebastopol slaughterhouse. There were three more that occurred at the company's Canton processing plant, two were detected at the Canton slaughterhouse and two at the Bay Springs slaughterhouse. All of the actions followed breaches of sanitary or food safety laws and in each case the company took corrective measures within days, the Clarion-Ledger said.
Curtis Stell, Peco Foods' director of quality assurance and food safety, stated in a letter that since 2007 the company has kept an excellent record of regulation compliance and this was evidence of Peco's commitment to food safety. He also explained that most of the violations were related to incomplete paperwork rather than implementing improper procedures at the plants.
Meanwhile, the investigation revealed that no facility in Mississippi had breached the Inhumane Treatment of Animals rules over the 10-year period. In fact, Southern Quality Meats of Pontotoc, the company whose employee was caught on camera improperly treating pigs in April, also has no record of mistreating animals, which suggests that the company did not commit such offenses over the investigation period or that the federal agency may have been enforcing standards leniently.
The latter was supported by a report released by the USDA OIG in May, stating that inspectors failed to consistently report violations and did not distinguish between minor infractions and significant incidents. Repeat offenders were also rarely treated differently from others, the report also noted.
While 52,000 enforcement actions were recorded at swine slaughterhouses across the United States from 2008 to 2011, only 168 led to a warning letter or suspension of operations, the report found.