In a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday, FWW Executive Director Wenonah Hauter cited incidents of understaffing in the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which she said “directly contradict” agency testimony before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee in April that there have not been any gaps in inspection.
The move follows a letter the organization sent last February, which described the FSIS policy of hiring “temporary inspectors” and the inspector vacancies resulting from a hiring freeze. The letter also claimed that there has been an increased number of recalls for products that had not received the benefit of inspection.
Hauter noted that a draft of the FY 2015 FSIS Appropriations Explanatory Notes posted on the USDA’s website in March included a paragraph about personnel reduction stating that, “Due to anticipation of the Poultry Slaughter Modernization rule publication in FY 2014, the Agency has determined that it is not prudent to rehire formerly filled positions at this time because the new methods for poultry slaughter require fewer Federal in plant personnel.”
Since the February letter, FWW has obtained several FSIS emails that suggest a lack of inspections.
According to the letter, Spam® was produced on April 27 without the benefit of inspection, an April report about inspection visits for the Denver District showed that there were 100 instances in which establishments didn’t receive inspection and 17 instances in which establishments were short-staffed, a FSIS front-line inspector described “severe” inspection staffing shortages in Alabama, and a series of emails directed inspectors not to visit processing plants because they were needed to cover slaughter assignments.
Responding to The New York Times article about FWW’s February letter, FSIS Deputy Assistant Administrator Aaron Lavallee wrote in an agency blog post that, “FSIS is legally required to have a sufficient number of inspectors present in every single meat and poultry plant in the country. No plant in America is allowed to operate if it does not have the required number of safety inspectors in the plant at all times, and every plant currently operating in America has the necessary food inspection staff.”
Lavallee explained that vacancy rates should not be confused with plant inspector shortages, implying that meat and poultry are less safe because of them.
“There is no connection between recent recalls and FSIS vacancy rates, and any claims that these issues are linked are false,” he wrote.
But Hauter was not convinced by Lavallee’s blog post.
“[I]t is apparent to us that FSIS is in complete disarray and is in need of an overhaul of leadership,” she wrote. “We have lost confidence in that agency because its leaders cannot be trusted to tell the truth and on the current course it is heading public health is being placed in jeopardy.”© Food Safety News