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The Case For Peeking Inside The Slaughterhouse

This is just a guess, but the single part of America's food system that inspires the most horrified fascination is probably the slaughterhouse. One reason may be that these factories that turn cattle, hogs and chickens into packaged meat are generally off-limits to the public and photographers.

Every day these plants process thousands of animals that end up on our dinner plates. But it's taken the work of food detectives and investigative journalists like Eric Schlosser, who wrote Fast Food Nation, to illuminate for us some of the unsafe practices (both for workers and consumers) that also can plague these facilities.

In the future, we may at least have a slightly better idea of what goes on in meat-packing plants, or at least what safety inspectors are finding there.

A new report from the National Research Council (an arm of the National Academy of Sciences) argues that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) should routinely release much of the data that it collects in these plants.

Currently, the FSIS releases summary data that shows, for instance, how often it finds salmonella contamination in all meat-packing plants. But the NRC says it should go much further, and post online the results of tests at each specific factory. Such data, according to the report, "could yield valuable insights" that would promote safer, healthier practices in the industry.

Remember that in August and September, food giant Cargill was forced to recall more than 36 million pounds of ground turkey tainted with salmonella. A plant in Springdale, Ark. was found to be responsible for the bulk of the contaminated meat. The bacteria "can be living in a drain or on a mop or on the walls or in an air vent," former Food and Drug Administration food safety chief David Acheson told our friends over at Shots back in September.

The company has set up an independent panel of experts to review Cargill's food safety program and make recommendations for avoiding similar events in the future. But the NRC scientists argue in the report that making this kind of data available could help make the industry more transparent. For one, experts outside the industry could help find ways to improve conditions and operations inside the plants.

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