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The federal agency that inspects the nation's slaughterhouses has lost sight of its mission and has buckled under political and financial pressures, according to a confidential USDA report.

The internal study of the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service said the agency, charged with ensuring that the meat supply is safe, has lost the confidence of the public and its own employees."The agency has been unable to reach agreement even among its own employees as to where it is going and how to get there," said the study, ordered by Jo Ann R. Smith, assistant agriculture secretary for marketing and inspection services.

Although the report has not been released to the public or the industry, copies have been leaked to food safety advocates and the media.

Activists say the report confirms what they've been saying - that the agency has put the economic interests of the industry before the health interests of consumers.

The report is also critical of the agency's failure to improve its scientific and technical capabilities, which food safety advocates contend are essential in determining the incidence of illness-causing bacteria on raw meat and poultry.

"There is a pervasive impression among the scientific community that FSIS is `behind the times scientifically,' " the report said.

The report cited the agency for failing to adopt National Academy of Sciences recommendations issued five and seven years ago, which it said are valid today.

"Fiscal and political forces and constraints have weighed heavily against some of the suggested changes," the report said. "It could be argued that FSIS has not been aggressive or clever enough in overcoming these constraints."

Food safety advocates have also faulted the agency for its failure to protect meat and poultry from unsanitary conditions, which can lead to contamination by bacteria that cause illness, in the nation's 7,000 slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities.