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Will Closing 5 FSIS Offices Impact Food Safety?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday that it would close 5 of its 15 Food Safety and Inspection (FSIS) District Offices as part of a consolidation that will decrease the agency’s budget and save taxpayer dollars.

This financially prudent move prompted Andrew Lorenz, deputy district manager of the agency’s office in Minneapolis, one of the five offices to be closed, to tell the Associated Press, ”They wiped out the entire Midwest.”

Such a statement resonates with some folks, who question if closing these five offices could adversely impact food safety imperatives. Such fears should be dispelled.

About 20 years ago, FSIS had a district office in Billings, MT with authority over Montana plants, including mine. This office was eliminated, its duties consolidated into the Minneapolis district office. This consolidation had NO adverse impact on the ability of Montana plants to produce safe food. This latest FSIS consolidation will likewise not adversely impact food safety or public health.

One of the 10 remaining district offices is in Denver, CO.  The entire states of Montana and Wyoming are much closer to Denver than they are to Minneapolis.  When the Minneapolis office is closed, Minnesota plants can be more efficiently covered by the remaining office in Des Moines than the Minneapolis office could ever have covered plants in Montana or Wyoming.

But this issue should not be decided primarily by physical juxtaposition of district offices to meat establishments. Rather, the primary focus of consolidation should be on FSIS’ actual physical presence and inspection of production at every meat establishment.

For example, let’s examine my plant, which I sold in 2005, and is still in full-time production.  There are five levels of agency oversight at this plant:

1. The in-plant inspector, who is there every day.

2. The inspector’s supervisor, a Supervisory Veterinarian Medical Officer (SVMO). This SVMO lives 3 1/2 hours away, and comes to this plant every 3 weeks or so.  Whenever the plant kills an animal that has potentially questionable health conditions, the SVMO must inspect it.

3. The SVMO’s supervisor, a Front Line Supervisor (FLS), who lives 2 hours away, and comes to the plant once a year or so.

4. The deputy manager of the Minneapolis district office, who is the afore-mentioned Andrew Lorenz.  I don’t believe Mr. Lorenz has yet to visit our local plant. And prior to Mr. Lorenz’s arrival, I would guess that I received visits by deputy managers only once every several years.

5. The manager of the Minneapolis District Office. I don’t remember my plant EVER being visited by any manager of the Minneapolis District Office. I have seen the last two managers of the Minneapolis district office in Montana for general meetings, but not at my plant.

Therefore, when the Minneapolis district office closes, all of the “hands on” inspection at this plant will remain as is, with no interruption, as levels 1 and 3 above will remain intact. The only change will be that levels 4 and 5 (which are not involved in inspecting meat) will be moved from Minneapolis to another district office, which I presume will be Denver.

  

The bottom line is simply that we taxpayers are paying for a redundancy of levels 4 and 5 across this country, as well as the expenses of running district offices, including space rent, utilities, phones, etc. Reducing the number of district offices from 15 to 10 will have zero impact on meat inspection, but will eliminate layers of costly and duplicative bureaucratic waste.

  

Additional layers of new bureaucratic positions, such as “humane handling specalists,” have been created in recent years. These folks visit slaughter establishments to ensure that plants are treating livestock humanely. A minority of plants slaughter animals, while a much higher percentage of plants only process. As such, the majority of plants in these districts do not require oversight for humane handling of livestock.

I respectfully submit that agency verification of an individual plant’s compliance with humane handling requirements can easily be conducted by agency personnel in layers 2 and 3, saving additional budgetary dollars.

Around 6 years ago, a new FSIS division was created — the Office of Program Evaluation, Enforcement and Review, or OPEER. This new division generated additional new positions, to perform work that had previously been handled by non-OPEER individuals. OPEER has four regional offices, all in the same buildings (but in different offices), which house 4 of the 10 district offices that will remain.

Perhaps OPEER duties can be reassumed by the same agency folks who performed this work prior to the creation of OPEER?

Taxpayer outrage is the mother of inventions and innovations, which FSIS must proactively embrace.  In my most recent visit to the Minneapolis District Office, I paid a visit to the OPEER office in the same building, but no one was in. It is important to realize that the OPEER office in Minneapolis is not one of OPEER’s four regional offices. This means that in addition to OPEER’s 4 regional offices, OPEER has many more offices throughout the country, all at taxpayer expense.

Maybe now is the time to eliminate OPEER, and reassign its duties back to previous FSIS entities to better utilize existing talent, absent additional and unnecessary personnel positions.

  

A review of America’s map, and the locations of the 10 remaining FSIS District Offices, reflects a paucity of agency bureaucratic coverage in the western third of America. Again, this FSIS reorganization does NOT reduce actual inspection coverage in the western states, but merely reduces the level of costly bureaucratic supervisory oversight.

District offices that will remain in Alameda, CA and Denver will now cover a larger geographical territory. This means that Denver and Alameda officials will have more states and plants to cover, but not to visit. Why do I say this? Please refer to my previous list of the five layers of FSIS personnel with authority over my plant, and see that levels 4 and 5 (from the district office) rarely visit plants in the field.

Why should they? The agency already has three levels of inspection oversight at all plants, so why should we burden taxpayers with the travel costs of District Office personnel who infrequently bless remote plants with their presence?

  

I respectfully suggest that layer 3, the position of a Front Line Supervisor, could be eliminated, with duties transferred to deputy district office managers, who are currently in layer 4. Only in America can we deceive ourselves into thinking that plants need three layers of inspection oversight, in addition to two layers of headquarters’ non-inspection bureaucracy.

With the development of technology, including laptops for all inspectors, now is the time for FSIS to closely scrutinize its multiple layers of redundant oversight, many of which require government vehicles, while accumulating  motel room costs, meals, etc.

I heartily congratulate USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Under Secretary Dr. Elisabeth Hagen and Administrator Al Almanza for the foresight and courage to tackle wasteful government spending, and design FSIS reorganization that will still protect public health while being a better steward of taxpayer dollars.

Corporations are forced into such painful decisions when economic reality dictates change.  Government entities must likewise appropriately respond.  We are fortunate that in this case, FSIS can accomplish sizeable budget reductions without jeopardizing public health or safe
food goals. These top three officials deserve our support!

And contrary to the self-serving statements of some, the entire Midwest is not being wiped out, nor is any other segment of America.

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John Munsell ran a USDA-inspected meat plant for 34 years, which had been in the family for 59 years. He now oversees the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement, FARE.  His website is www.johnmunsell.com

© Food Safety News
  • doc raymond

    If you asked Joe Six Pack what states constituted the American Midwest, I think he would include Nebraska and Iowa, whose District Office remains intact. I doubt he would include Wyoming and Montana, whose District Office was rightfully eliminated. This move allows FSIS to take the poorest performing district offices and their leaders and retire them. In this case the cream really will rise to the top and hopefully create a more consistent inspection work force. Probably the real question is do we need any District Offices at all in this electronic era?