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Consumer Group Again Calls on FSIS to Address Food Safety Inspector Shortages

Food & Water Watch (FWW) continues to prod the U.S. Department of Agriculture about shortages of food safety inspectors.

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
  • John Munsell

    While it is true that inspectors must be present at all times at a slaughter establishment, they do not have to be present all day long at processing facilities. FSIS policy requires inspectors to merely make a visit to every processing plant daily, which is many cases entails only a few minutes for inspectors which are on patrol assignment, meaning they cover several plants daily. In those cases, inspectors barely have time to turn on their laptops & sign in, before turning their laptops off and hurry to the next plant. So what? Inspection under HACCP has degenerated primarily to monitoring plant-generated documents, mostly divorced from meat inspection. As long as we embrace that mentality, who cares if FSIS doesn’t physically inspect plants and their meat production lines daily? Please remember that when FSIS described its role under HACCP in the mid-90’s, the agency stated that its role would be “Hands Off”, and that “FSIS would no longer police the industry, but the industry would police itself”. The agency also promised that it would disband its previous command & control authority upon HACCP’s implementation. We all bought into such thinking, Therefore, we have no grounds to complain when we are presented evidence that many plants do not see an inspector on some days. And, I’ve personally seen and heard of such instances countless times, both when I still owned my plant, and subsequently. FSIS would be lying if it attempts to deny that some plants don’t receive daily inspection. Remember when Dr. Richard Raymond was embarrassed at a hearing, when he claimed that every plant receives inspection every day, but proof to the contrary was presented. Dr. Raymond had been mislead by his own staff, who didn’t want him to know the ugly truth.
    Deceptive, misleading statements (aka lying) is not new protocol for FSIS, as is obvious when the agency greatly redacts all pertinent & damaging evidence when replying to FOIA’s, which is yet another embarrassment.
    Ultimately, we have to decide if we object to a deregulated meat industry or not. FSIS-style HACCP indeed deregulates the largest packers, while hyper-regulating the small plants, many out of business. Therefore, I suggest that the real issue is NOT daily inspection presence at all plants, but do we want domestic meat to be inspected at all? HIMP is here! And, FSIS has yet to fully describe what their inspectors will do at HIMP plants. What is the minumum number of meat samples which HIMP inspectors must collect under the HIMP umbrella? FSIS has assiduously avoided any clear definition of exactly what they will require HIMP inspection personnel to perform. Prior to HACCP’s implementation in 1998, the agency publicly stated that their in-plant personnel would be HACCP-trained “Just In Time”. History proved time & again that in many cases, they were not. The same is true now, in that FSIS desires to educate the world about FSIS duties under HIMP after the fact, or…….”Just in time”.
    John Munsell

  • crookedstick

    Beef-slaughter Plants are woefully uninspected, now, USDA wants to had horses to the mix. Exactly why I will never buy red-meat again.