Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series.

I had two simultaneous careers: the U.S. Army Reserve and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). I graduated from the U.S. Army War College (USAWC) with a masters degree in Strategic Studies. I earned a bachelors of science, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, and masters in Veterinary Pathology with a minor in Meat Science. I participated in strategic planning on two general staffs. I was an Inspector-in-Charge in slaughter and processing establishments in the pre-HACCP era, a member of the team that implemented the Pathogen Reduction; Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems final rule (PR/HACCP rule), and a participant in the inspection policy initiatives that followed. I understand how bureaucracies work and the difference between what FSIS has the authority to require and what FSIS wants but lacks the authority to require.

In 2014, Food Safety News published my “Reflections on 30 Years as a USDA Veterinarian” where I shared my thoughts on FSIS culture and inspection initiatives. I did not intend to pursue regulatory-related work following retirement from FSIS. Then fate stepped in. A very small official establishment solicited my assistance, exposing me to the raw, unfettered administrative power of the FSIS bureaucracy in a way that working for FSIS never did. 

The FSIS bureaucracy abuses its administrative power in pursuit of what it wants but lacks the authority to require. I have assisted small and very small establishments push back against this administrative abuse. I have seen establishment owners stand their ground and succeed. I have seen them appease FSIS and suffer unnecessary economic hardship. I have seen them give up in frustration and close their doors. 

The USAWC teaches that strategic planning is how an organization adapts to its operational environment to achieve its mission. For what it’s worth, I’d like to share my thoughts on how federal meat inspection has failed to adapt to its operational environment, resulting in a federal agency that abuses its administrative power in pursuit of a mission it cannot achieve. 

The FSIS Mission
American government is a vast legal system. Everything flows from the U. S. Constitution, which defines the fundamental mission of government: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Promoting the general welfare means seeking ways to solve social and economic problems.

It is the finding of Congress [21 USC §§ 451, 602, 1031] that adulterated and/or misbranded meat, poultry, and egg products in interstate commerce injure the general welfare by destroying markets, an economic problem. To address the economic problem, Congress passed the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), and the Egg Products Inspection Act (EPIA). The FMIA, PPIA, and EPIA task the Secretary of Agriculture (i.e., Secretary) with assuring that meat, poultry, and egg products distributed in commerce are not adulterated (i.e., wholesome) and not misbranded (i.e., properly marked, labeled, and packaged). The FMIA, PPIA, and EPIA assign specific functions to the Secretary, which the Secretary delegates, through the Under Secretary for Food Safety [7 CFR 2.18], to the FSIS Administrator [7 CFR 2.53]. 

The FMIA, PPIA, and EPIA task FSIS with assuring that adulterated and/or misbranded meat, poultry, or egg products are not distributed in commerce, but implementing the FMIA, PPIA, and EPIA is only part of the total FSIS mission. 7 CFR 2.53 is just a partial list of other legislation that drives the total FSIS mission. 

Institutional Culture Matters
The FSIS institutional culture is counterproductive. Domestic federal meat inspection came into its own following legislative reform [34 Stat 674] to address economic abuses by meat packers. Industry had behaved badly. The Secretary tasked the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) with implementing federal meat inspection. The BAI responded like a prosecutor (i.e., justice system) empowered to protect a victim (i.e., consumers) by punishing the criminal (i.e., industry). An institutional culture was established: the federal inspector is righteous; industry is immoral; coercion is required and justified to control industry. That same institutional culture exists today in FSIS.

The FMIA, PPIA, and EPIA do not authorize the Secretary to prosecute and punish industry. They do not empower the Secretary to determine how industry operates. The FMIA, PPIA, and EPIA task the Secretary with causing an inspection of products prepared for commerce and empower the Secretary to remove inspectors from any establishment that fails to destroy product marked ‘‘Inspected and condemned;’’ withhold use of marking or labeling that is false or misleading; and refuse to mark products ‘‘inspected and passed’’ if sanitary conditions are such that products are rendered adulterated. They empower the Secretary to use regulatory techniques (i.e., withholding inspection service or the mark of inspection) to achieve regulatory compliance. Withholding inspection service or the mark of inspection is intended to motivate compliance by depriving industry of access to a marketplace, not deprive industry of the ability to operate. That said, FSIS administrative abuse of regulatory techniques can feel like prosecution and punishment by the criminal justice system.

I cannot say why, in 1906, the BAI believed a heavy-handed approach necessary, but it is now 2022. The operational environment changed. Household consumers are informed and demand quality. Commercial consumers (e.g., McDonalds, Walmart) impose purchase standards exceeding federal standards. The economic calculus changed. Producers of lesser quality foods lose market share and go out of business. Economic realities, not federal oversight, motivate companies to produce not adulterated/not misbranded products. The “prosecutor-criminal” mentality of the past is not conducive to an efficient, effective federal inspection.

Institutional Personality Matters
Between 1906 and 1981, annual reports from USDA bureau/division chiefs repeatedly describe insufficient manpower as a primary challenge to the conduct of inspection. In 1907, the BAI reported needing “more than double” the existing number of employees to conduct federal inspection. The problem continues to exist. These annual reports do not describe operational shortfalls due to insufficient manpower, but they must have occurred. It is unlikely that the BAI could triple its workforce in one year, or that bureau/division chiefs would acknowledge, in public documents, mission shortfalls linked to the lack of inspection personnel.

Between 1906 and 1981, the federal inspection mission passed amongst 10 different parent agencies. Within each parent agency, federal inspection was subordinated to the parent agency’s existing mission and implemented by a bureau/division with no management control over inspection resources. The BAI subordinated federal meat inspection to its mission to promote livestock disease research, enforce animal import regulations, and regulate the interstate movement of animals. The effect is still evident in the emphasis on animal disease in 9 CFR 309 and 9 CFR 311.

In my opinion, herein lies the origin of the institutional personality and the practice of “management by avoidance” within federal inspection services. It is human nature to avoid blame if possible. Bureau/division chiefs of under-resourced federal programs that get passed around the USDA like an unwanted Christmas gift do not become confident, assertive, and transparent. They become insular, insecure, and non-transparent. They avoid making decisions. They hide behind their bureaucratic walls and administrative practices. They do whatever they must to avoid exposing their mission shortcomings. They don’t “make waves.”

In 1981, for the first time, federal meat and poultry inspection became the primary mission of a single agency: FSIS. FSIS inherited an insular, insecure, non-transparent bureaucracy that ignores internal problems and practices management by avoidance. The FSIS bureaucracy dislikes change or outsiders. Most FSIS Administrators come to the job from within FSIS. Texas A&M University professor H. Russell Cross and director of the Wyoming Department of Health Garry McKee came to the position of FSIS Administrator as outside reformers. Cross resigned after 24 months, McKee after 19 months. Historically, FSIS has promoted from within with predictable results. FSIS increasingly lacks the advanced skill sets and outside knowledge to regulate a highly dynamic and diverse industry. FSIS continues to struggle to attract and keep high-functioning employees.

The FSIS bureaucracy neither admits nor corrects mistakes. Just read the “Legg’s Regs” exposé in the Montana Standard and the FSIS response to a congressional request that the USDA Inspector General investigate alleged misconduct within FSIS. FSIS does not like to be questioned. Try getting a straight answer from asking FSIS a simple question. As an FSIS staff officer, I was instructed to not answer questions from industry. FSIS does not welcome criticism. Just read an FSIS response to a GAO audit.

Organizational culture and personality can positively or negatively impact an organization’s ability to accomplish its mission. FSIS culture and personality are incompatible with the FSIS strategic mission: promote the general welfare by preventing adulterated/misbranded product in commerce. Federal inspection is a public service, not a justice system. Yes, industry must be held to regulatory performance standards, but industry in toto is not a bad actor that requires a prosecutor. Such an approach hinders, not promotes, American agriculture. An organization that practices management by avoidance, that is closed to outside input, that hides internal failures, and ignores it critics, is incapable of addressing change in a highly dynamic and diverse operating environment. FSIS is such an organization. 

FSIS faces significant challenges from within and without. A counterproductive organizational culture and personality is a challenge from within. FSIS has done nothing to address its internal institutional shortfalls. FSIS views the direct recipient of its inspection services as a “bad actor.” FSIS manages problems by avoiding problems. FSIS managers don’t “make waves.” Consequently, FSIS fails to adapt to its ever changing operational environment.

Dr. Michael Fisher

About the author: Dr. Michael Fisher is the son of Iowa swine producers He earned BS, DVM, and MS degrees from Iowa State University. He began his FSIS career in the Office of Field Operations and retired from the Office of Policy and Program Development. Dr. Fisher is also Col. Fisher, U.S. Army (Retired). He is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff Colleges and Army War College, where he earned a second MS degree. His military assignments focused on food service sanitation, subsistence inspection, and animal care from company level to general staff. He is currently an Adjunct Professor with Johns Hopkins University.