We practice at least two types of journalism here. Mostly we do daily journalism, finding out what we can and bringing it to you in the same news cycle. We are also are able to do some investigative reporting, also known as enterprise journalism, that requires more time to produce. Usually, the subject of investigative reporting or enterprise journalism is going to know something is in the works, just as the target of a criminal investigation does. For the subject, there’s always the question of whether you can do anything about it before the story hits. I’ve played this game from both ends of the field. I’ve done the hunting, and I’ve had clients who were the hunted. My perspective is there are not many options, but I’ve seen a lot of stupid tricks tried. In the old media era, an often-tried ploy was to leak some alternative version to competing media. By doing that you double your media attention and risk spinning facts that may or may not be included in the coming story. It can also become a problem when you cannot find a media whore when you need one. (It’s not that they do not exist, it’s just that the one’s that do stay so damn busy.) So, I guess it did not surprise me this week when our pals at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) tried to cut into the story our federal government reporter has been working on for weeks. What they did was simple. They started disclosing previously unavailable information on USDA’s website. This was information critical to our story. Their childish behavior left us with no choice but to publish what we had immediately. That part was no problem because our Washington D.C. correspondent, Helena Bottemiller, was ready to go. We were holding the story only because of the storm and the election, the two dominant national stories that were suffocating most others. But the media boys at FSIS left us with no choice. We published “Investigation: USDA Quietly Eliminated 60 Percent of Foreign Meat Inspections,” By Helena Bottemiller on Nov. 1. For meat-eating Americans, it is the most important food safety story of the year. The media boys at FSIS whined about our headline writing, which went with the English language instead of the USDA technical manual, but raised no substantive objections to the story. Just for the record, we know USDA does not inspect foreign meat during these audits. What is has done for a very long time is inspect the foreign meat inspection systems. (Actually, it’s hard for me to see how you’d accomplish such a task without doing a little meat inspecting, but everybody gets the distinction.) The goal of our foreign inspection teams is to determine if the country exporting meat to U.S. has an equivalent food safety system to our own. According to Dr. Richard Raymond, USDA’s last undersecretary for food safety, about 35 counties have been found through these physical site visits to be equivalent to USDA’s. For reasons unknown, the current administration has drastically cut back these hands-on examinations of America’s foreign meat suppliers. Raymond says these cutbacks in foreign meat audits by FSIS personnel is a far more significant story than last spring’s blowup about lean finely textured beef being called “pink slime.” I agree. Food safety was never at risk in the LFTB, but once it was called “pink slime” it was a repeat of the old story about the dog not wanting to eat the dog food. Timing problems aside, our story is getting some attention from other media and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) wrote U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack to detail his department’s efforts to ensure the safety of imported meat and poultry. DeLauro, a senior member of the committee that funds the USDA, used all the proper language in peppering Vilsack with questions, including:
- How many in-person audits does the agency intend to conduct in 2012?
- Why did the USDA dramatically decrease the number of in-person audits of foreign meat and poultry plants over the past four years?
- Why has the number of in-person audits varied from 20 in 2009 to 3 in 2011? Have budgetary constraints or considerations played a role in the department’s decision to decrease the number of in-person audits of foreign meat and poultry plants?
- Since 2008, how has the department determined the number of in-person audits and the specific countries to audit each year? How does the department intend to make these determinations in future years? Have these determinations changed from how the department made these decisions in years prior to 2008?
- How is the cost of those audits integrated into the department’s budget request for FSIS? Has FSIS requested or received less funding for in-person audits in recent years?
- Why was the department’s apparent fundamental shift in in-person oversight – from nearly-annual in-person audits to irregular at best – not publicly announced or open to comment and review?
- What is the department’s long-term vision for in-person audits of foreign meat and poultry plants for trading partners that have received equivalency? How frequently will those in-person audits be conducted?
- What is the process for ensuring timely public posting of both plant audits and audit reports? How long will it take from the time an audit is conducted for the audit report to be available to the public?
Cutbacks in the system that has kept foreign meat safe before it is exported to the U.S. are recklessly dangerous because they have not been replaced with anything else. This amounts to a policy change executed in secret for God knows who’s agenda. Further, this is yet another example of the current government preaching transparency, but practicing something else indeed.