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Should FSIS Publish Plant Inspection Reports?

The National Research Council (NRC) recently suggested that FSIS release of establishment-specific data could benefit food safety.  Pertinent excerpts of media reports include the following statements:

“Substantial benefits can be gained by publicly posting (a) enforcement data from reports written by inspectors, and (b) testing data from standard laboratory tests.” 


“The report comes in light of the Obama administration’s push for increased transparency across federal agencies.”


Release of this data “could introduce a new incentive for processors to avoid disease-causing contaminants,” while “motivating processors to improve their food safety performance.”


“Companies could be damaged by poor or inaccurate inspection reports,” which could create “unintended adverse consequences.”

I would like to comment on the quotes listed above.

When President Obama stated in 2009 his desire for increased government transparency, my impression was that he wanted activities of federal agencies to be transparent and open for public scrutiny, admittedly a dramatic change.  NRC’s recommendations do not increase transparency of FSIS actions and policies, but provide transparency into individual companies’ microbial test results and alleged non-compliance with FSIS in-plant operational expectations.  Big distinction.

I have publicly stated for several years that FSIS should release microbial test results of all agency-conducted testing, by company.  Not only would such data provide benefits to public health, but should be mandated because the testing was funded via taxpayer dollars. Testing performed by the company, at company expense, should not be released to the public, but must be available to FSIS inspection personnel, as authorized by FSIS Notice 54-03 and FSIS Directive 5000.2, Rev 2.

All FSIS-conducted test results should be posted on USDA’s website, in real time, not requiring FOIA requests, which are time-consuming and the results are not always truthful.

Complimentary test results can be used by a meat facility as proof of their successful commitment to food safety.  Adverse results, on the other hand, would indeed provide a public incentive to plants to improve their production procedures.

 It is unconscionable for a government entity to utilize taxpayer dollars to conduct science-based microbial test results, only to subsequently deny public access to the test results.  What is FSIS hiding?  While not qualifying for “taxation without representation,” the agency’s unwillingness to release such data constitutes “taxation without revelation,” intentionally obfuscating truth which should be public.  I can understand why FSIS would artificially restrict dissemination of such data, because adverse data reflects negatively on the agency’s oversight (or lack thereof) of the meat and poultry industry.

While lab microbial test results are objective and science-based tools, data from reports written by inspection personnel are frequently subjective and inherently disingenuous agency ploys. The current FSIS HACCP protocol is no longer focused on meat inspection, but on auditing company-produced paperwork.  Although the agency initially portrayed FSIS-style HACCP as a pathogen chase, the system quickly degenerated into a paper chase, usually with zero connection to food safety.  Responding to mandates from FSIS HQ’s bean counters, agency field personnel are expected to generate a plethora of ongoing reports, one of which is Noncompliance Records (NRs).  The number of NRs per plant, or per agency district, varies greatly across America, largely dependent on mandates (quotas) established by supervisory personnel for their own biased reasons.

Dr. Richard Raymond, who headed up FSIS from 2005 – 2008, authored a series of six blogs on meatingplace.com this year focused on the agency’s unethical targeting of Montana plants for an exorbitant number of NRs.  Following Dr. Raymond’s revelations, the incidence of NRs in Montana dramatically dropped, not because plants made ANY changes, but because the agency’s misbehavior had been publicized.  Now that’s what I call transparency!  I originally perceived that such unethical agency actions were unique to Montana, only to be subsequently educated by FSIS personnel and plant management in numerous states that such agency misdeeds occur sporadically across America, wherever mislead, power-hungry FSIS personnel are ensconced.  Some FSIS officials are proficient in their ability to fabricate intentionally false allegations against innocent plants, ostensibly portraying the plants as (a) lacking a commitment to food safety, and (b) utilizing insanitary production protocol.

  

Public release of such falsified “evidence” would not only damage the reputation of legitimate firms, but even more importantly, will NOT improve public health goals, since the focus would be on falsified allegations.  Since we all share the goal of improved food safety, with the obvious benefit to public health, our focus should be on determining the true SOURCE of contaminated meat, which is not revealed by falsified agency paperwork allegations, but on microbial lab test results.

  

A hot topic within FSIS at this time is validation.  The agency’s Dr. William K. Shaw gave a PowerPoint presentation to the FSIS National Advisory Council for Meat & Poultry Inspection (NACMPI) on Sept. 22, 2011, entitled “HACCP Systems Validation.”  Dr. Shaw defined validation this way:

“Validation involves scientifically demonstrating that a HACCP system as designed, is effective in addressing the identified food safety hazards.”

The agency itself admits that proving, or validating, the effectiveness of individual HACCP Plans requires scientific protocol, which is available via lab analyses.  Notably, validating individual plant success is not focused on a plethora of daily paperwork, which can be easily falsified.  An excellent revelation on the shortcomings of reliance upon paper flow to determine a plant’s ability to produce safe food can be found in Chapters 7 and 8 in Timothy Pachirat’s recent book “Every Twelve Seconds.”  Anyone sincerely interested in the value of releasing plant-specific data must consider chapters 7 and 8 of Pachirat’s book as a must read.

If FSIS were to greatly increase its microbiological testing of carcasses, intact cuts (boxed beef), trimmings and ground beef at source slaughter plants, and releasing all results in real time absent artificial restrictions, the entire world would know within one month which slaughter plants have ongoing problems on their kill floors.  FSIS is loathe to do this, preferring instead to focus its testing at downstream further processing plants which unwittingly purchase meat which was previously contaminated at the source slaughter plant.  The agency’s newfound desire to publish data, as suggested by NRC, merely diverts our attention from the true source of contamination, the VAST majority of which is introduced at the slaughter plants.

  

Let’s make public release of scientific data provide maximized benefits for public health considerations!  Let’s initially increase agency-conducted testing at all slaughter plants, digest the results, and then advance to the next step, which is to include data from processing plants as well.

  

FSIS will disagree with me, for obvious reasons.  The agency does not want consumers to realize that agency oversight of the industry’s largest slaughter plants has lead USDA’s own Office of Inspector General to state in two separ
ate reports:

“USDA had reduced its oversight [under HACCP] short of what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer.”

My recommendation is to release science-based evidence to the public, which will not only motivate facilities to improve their performance (as the NRC report suggests), but will also allow FSIS obfuscation of evidence to be more “transparent,” as President Obama recommends.

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John Munsell oversees the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement, FARE.  His website is www.johnmunsell.com

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