FORT MORGAN, Colorado (CNN) -- On a ranch nestled in the high plains of northeastern Colorado, thousands of cattle are being fattened up and prepared for slaughter.
Owner Gary Teague's operation seems enormous: 20,000 head of cattle over 25,000 acres. But it's a relatively tiny part of an industry with an estimated worth of more than $100 billion annually.
"There are over 800,000 beef producers like myself across the country that are working hard every day to ensure that the product we put out there is safe and wholesome," Teague said.
But some are concerned about the health of nation's meat inspection system. As nearly 12 million cattle nationwide are being readied for slaughter this year to satisfy America's passion for beef, new questions have arisen about the safety of the nation's meat supply and the agency that oversees it.
Graphic undercover video taped and released by the Humane Society of the United States this year raised questions about the safety of meat processing plants. Downed cattle shown in the video, by regulation, should have been examined by a U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian before they were slaughtered to make sure no animal with mad cow disease had entered the nation's food supply.
But those examinations never happened.
Stanley Painter, who was a USDA inspector for 22 years, says the agency, which oversees food safety and inspection, doesn't allow inspectors to enforce regulations. He says that sometimes, plants fix the problems discovered by inspectors, and sometimes they don't.
By federal law, there are inspectors at each of the nation's slaughterhouses. Painter, who now heads the union that represents inspectors, said that in some parts of the country, there are 20 percent fewer inspectors than there should be. Nationwide, the vacancy figure is just under 11 percent.
"They are telling us to 'let the system work,' " Painter told CNN. "Which means that if you see a problem, stand back and watch and see what the plant is going to do with it."
Responsibility for food regulation is splintered among 15 federal agencies. Some influential lawmakers, like Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, are also concerned. She's among those who believe an independent food inspection agency is needed to protect consumers from food-borne illnesses.
"It's never going to be perfect," DeLauro said. "But what we have now is a food system that is collapsing."
Jay Truitt disagrees. The former top official with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association says the multilayered food inspection system works well.
"It's a great system, and we've done a great job," he said. "We literally are looked at around the world ... as having the safest product on the planet."
Despite claims that the nation's food supply is safe, the videos released by the Humane Society triggered the largest meat recall in U.S. history and the plant shut down.
In addition to safety concerns, serious questions have also been raised about how many former beef industry lobbyists are working in top positions at the USDA.
The USDA website, www.usda.gov, shows five key staffers who once worked for the National Cattleman's Beef Association - the industry's most powerful lobbying group. The man in charge of the lobbying arm of the nation's meat packers was also a top USDA official.
"Even with my former ties at USDA, I am not of the view that I have any influence with the department," said Patrick Boyle, head of the American Meat Institute.
But food safety advocates disagree. They say the cross-pollination between the meat industry and government has made the lobby a major force.
"The fact that they've managed to put some of their former key people in key positions at USDA makes them very powerful," said Tony Corbo of Food and Water Watch.
The meat recall triggered by the Humane Society video, one of the largest in history, was opposed by the industry because no one had become ill. Nevertheless, food safety advocates say there was one aspect of that recall that illustrated the meat industry's influence with the USDA.
"We cannot even get a list of the retail outlets where this product was sent," DeLauro said. "We cannot get a list of schools where this product was sent, and that's because the industry regards and has labeled these lists as proprietary."
Food safety advocates have been pushing for USDA regulation that would include such information on food labels. But that regulation has been tied up for two years.
For its part, the USDA is considering relatively modest changes, such as installing cameras in the nation's 378 livestock slaughterhouses.
"It's one of the changes we would consider," said Dr. Richard Raymond of the USDA. "Not specifically considering just that. There's got to be some changes made probably based on the investigation. We're going to do whatever works best."
Back at the Teague ranch in Colorado, the view is that the system doesn't need to be fixed because it isn't broken.
"We have the safest beef product today on plates that we have ever seen," Teague said. "The fact that USDA is in charge of regulating this industry and making sure that we're doing the right things for the right reasons, I think, speaks for itself."
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