The USDA is pushing for meat processors to change the way their products are inspected, although congressional investigators say there's no proof the new system is as safe as the traditional program.

Under the new system, federal inspectors no longer do hand checks of carcasses, leaving that job to company employees. The inspectors are supposed to spend more time monitoring plant sanitation equipment, overseeing plant workers and sampling products for contamination.

While the USDA, which says the changes will result in safer meat, has decided not to make the system mandatory but plans to expand it to new facilities on a voluntary basis.

``This is an improved system, but it depends on a lot of things, including plant commitment,' says Margaret Glavin, acting administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) says the USDA's decision to continue the program is a recipe for a food safety disaster.

A General Accounting Office report cites test results that indicate some plants participating in a pilot project had more problems with some forms of contamination.

Five of 11 chicken processing plants had higher rates of salmonella contamination than previously, and two processors showed improvement. Tests also found higher rates of defects, such as bruises, on chickens processed by many of the 11 plants, according to the GAO.

Data collected by an independent testing firm shows that fecal material continued to show up on chicken in 10 of the 11 plants using the new inspection system. As many as seven of the 11 plants had higher rates of some quality defects, problems such as bruises and stray feathers, that posed no health hazard, the report states.

Conversely, data gathered by the USDA found somewhat better results. Even so, testing so far doesn't prove that the ``modified inspections are at least equal to traditional inspections,' which was USDA's criteria for going forward with the program, says the GAO.

USDA started the project in 1999 and is now operating the new inspection system in 25 plants that slaughter chickens, turkeys and hogs.

The inspectors union is fighting the project in court, contending the traditional system is better. Nevertheless, GAO found broad support for the experimental system among rank-and-file inspectors.

In addition, the report says that 71 percent of the USDA inspectors and veterinarians surveyed by GAO contend products were as safe or safer under the new system. Some inspectors say they have more time to oversee the slaughter lines and collect carcass samples than they did before.

USDA officials say they decided to keep the program voluntary partly out of fear standards might slip in plants that weren't willing to put the time and money into making improvements.

Harkin requested the GAO study along with the panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana.

Associated Press