By PHilip Brasher

Associated Press Farm Writer

WASHINGTON (AP)--The government may cut its oversight of food processors by reducing the time meat inspectors spend doing jobs the plants could do themselves, such as checking scales or monitoring the fat and water content of products.

The Department of Agriculture, 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. They are working on ways to free up more time for inspectors to spend on microbial testing and other measures to curb food poisoning.

"We are 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," said Phil Derfler, associate deputy administrator of United States Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Among the inspectors' current responsibilities:

--Inspectors enforce a variety of rules on the content of meat products: For example, fresh pork sausage can be no more than 50% 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.

--The agency devotes the equivalent of 25 to 50 full-time inspectors each year to check whether poultry carcasses have absorbed excessive amounts of water after slaughtering.

--Thousands of tests are performed 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.

"We are trying to make sure that our resources are devoted to food safety. That is our first priority," said USDA's Derfler.

Processors generally support the department's move, although some companies say they fear that corner-cutting competitors might take advantage of reduced oversight by USDA and cheat on the rules. In a letter this week to the department, industry groups said the department should focus its enforcement on plants that have a history of breaking rules, such as those on fat content.

"There is a limited number of resources for inspection and we have to focus those resources on food safety," said Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute.

"Most companies are doing a very good job of handling these nonfood safety issues. If there's a problem, let's concentrate the resources where the problems exist."

Separately, the department is experimenting with a new system for inspecting animal carcasses in slaughterhouses that puts more responsibility on packers to catch defects in meat. USDA inspectors who traditionally poke and sniff each carcass are leaving that job to plant employees and are instead doing more testing for microbes and sampling for fecal contamination.

The inspectors union sued to stop the project, and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed this summer that USDA inspectors are required by law to do hands-on checks of animal carcasses.

The Agriculture Department regulates meat, poultry and egg products. All other foods are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and state agencies.

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