WASHINGTON (AP) _ Stepped-up inspections at some meat and poultry plants are set to begin in April, according to an Agriculture Department official overseeing the first overhaul of food safety inspections in a decade.
The new policy, announced Thursday, is designed to increase scrutiny of processing plants where the threat of E. coli and other germs is high or where past visits have found unsafe practices. Plants with fewer risks and better food-handling records will be inspected less often.
The Agriculture Department proposes switching to the new system at about 250 locations, or about 5 percent of the nation's estimated 5,300 processing plants.
``We will do this for a long time in these locations until we've had a chance to evaluate how well it's going, where the bumps in the road might be, what we might need to do differently and how training needs to change,'' said Richard Raymond, the Agriculture Department's top food safety official.
As many as 1,200 plants might be part of the new system by Jan. 1.
Food safety critics weren't pleased. Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy for Consumer Federation of America, called the policy reckless and illegal. She said the new policy was the result of the White House's desire to reduce spending and ``will almost surely result in more illnesses and more deaths from food poisoning.''
Raymond said the changes were not money-driven and that the goal was to reduce illness from food poisoning.
Other critics say the idea has merit, but they fear the department is rushing a complex new system into place. The new system will start before officials have finished ranking the levels of risk posed by various meat products.
``Moving too quickly, before they have fully analyzed the risk of different products, could start the program in the wrong direction,'' said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The American Meat Institute, a trade group, says a risk-based inspection system sounds good in theory, but the government needs to slow down and spend more time briefing plant operators and meat safety inspectors about the program.
``This approach could threaten consumer confidence in these companies and their products after a decade of dramatic food safety enhancements,'' said J. Patrick Boyle, the organization's president.
Raymond said he thinks the timeline will reassure those who want change to happen gradually.
``I think we've been very deliberate,'' he said during a conference call with reporters, noting that the program had been in the works for more than 18 months.
To decide the level of scrutiny a plant should get, the ``risk-based'' system will consider the type of product and a plant's size and record of food safety violations.
A plant that makes hamburger and has repeated violations would get more inspections. A plant that makes cooked, canned ham and has a clean track record would get less scrutiny.
Daily inspections of the plants are required under federal law and would continue, and the changes would apply only to processing plants and not to slaughter plants.
About 76 million people get sick from food poisoning each year in the United States. Around 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die each year because of foodborne diseases.