Dr. Yolanda Thomspon was the USDA inspector on duty for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) at the Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. plant in Storm Lake, IA, on March 26, 2018.
Her actions that day are alleged to have cost Tyson Fresh Meats and Tyson Foods Inc. $1.85 million. Tyson has sued the United States for almost $2.5 million.
Tyson’s lawsuit against the federal government, filled in U.S. District Court for Northern Iowa, may open a window to view FSIS practices. The agency’s meat and poultry inspectors are assigned to more than 6,200 processing and slaughter plants located throughout the nation.
According to documents Tyson filed with the court, the Tyson Storm Lake facility slaughtered 4,622 hogs on March 26, 2018. Thompson was the FSIS inspector on duty and was responsible for pre-slaughter inspections, referred to in federal statutes as ante-mortem inspections
The Tyson complaint says Thomson presented Tyson Storm Lake management with signed inspection pen cards certifying that the more than 4,600 hogs had been inspected and were eligible to bear the USDA mark of inspection.
“Unbeknownst to Tyson Storm Lake management, Dr. Thompson conducted negligent ante-mortem inspections of the hogs prior to slaughter,” according to the complaint. “Video footage obtained later revealed that Dr. Thompson never entered the pre-slaughter holding area to perform an in-person visual inspection of the hogs as required to satisfy her duties as both (1) an employee and agent of the defendant and (2) a reasonable person taking on the duty to conduct inspections for the protection of others. Instead, Dr. Thompson remained in her vehicle, signing the inspection cards without entering the holding area to examine the hogs.
“Tyson Storm Lake management was unaware that Dr. Thompson was negligent in conducting the ante-mortem inspections until the following day, March 27, 2018, when they were informed by FSIS personnel that the hogs at issue had not received proper ante-mortem inspections.”
Such inspections are important from a food safety perspective and are required by federal law.
Rosaland Koob, Tyson’s Sioux City attorney, said the management at the Storm Lake plant took immediate steps to mitigate the damages.
“Unfortunately, by this time, the negligently inspected hog carcasses had been intermingled into a larger group of approximately 8,000 hog carcasses and, consequently, the negligently inspected hog carcasses could no longer be positively identified,” the complaint explains. “On March 30, 2018, USDA, acting through supervisors of the Des Moines Field Office, concluded that it was not possible to clearly identify whether the animals were subject to any health conditions that would have necessitated condemnation of the negligently inspected carcasses. This left Tyson with no choice but to destroy the negligently inspected carcasses and those with which they had been commingled, salvaging portions of the product for non-food related purposes at a greatly reduced rate.”
Tyson’s says it has a claim that totals $2,480,961 because of “the USDA-FSIS inspector’s negligence.” Most of that sum is from the loss of the condemned pork, but Tyson’s complaint says the company incurred costs for loss of sales to third parties, freight and storage, emergency overtime, and expenses from losing the regular use of its plant.
Tyson’s claims USDA-FSIS personnel were aware of the deficiencies in the quality, scope, and integrity of Dr. Thompson’s inspection practices. Other USDA employees on site told Tyson employees about Thompson’s “bad habits related to her inspection practices.”
The company’s complaint also says USDA-FSIS knew of Thompson’s physical limitations and difficulty walking.
“Dr. Thompson’s normal inspection site was the turkey processing plant, a plant that is much smaller in size than the pork processing plant,” Tyson says.
“In addition, the way in which the animals are kept in the pork processing plant requires an inspector to navigate the holding pens. If the USDA and/or FSIS personnel adequately trained and supervised Dr. Thompson, or otherwise addressed Dr. Thompson’s deficient inspection practices and her health issues, the damage to Tyson could have been avoided”
The USDA and FSIS have not yet responded to the complaint, which was filed May 14,
The four-count complaint says the U.S. government is guilty of negligence, negligent inspection, negligent retention, and negligent supervision. It says Thompson “failed to act as a reasonable person when she performed the ante-mortem inspections.”
Tyson says under Iowa law, the federal government has the same liability for the damages it causes as a private party does. It says the “duty to inspect” is an operational task and not something that was done at FSIS’s discretion.
The USDA-FSIS failed to recognize that Thompson was unfit to perform inspections as necessary, the plaintiffs contend. They did not recognize her “mobility and performance” issues.
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