USDA “setting the record straight” about inspectors

I was working on a story about how pasture-fed ranchers in California have been hit by the drought and the closing of Rancho. Accessibility to USDA slaughterhouses and especially USDA cut and wrap operators is creating a bottleneck. Consolidation, environmental rules, NIMBY (no way am I going to have a slaughterhouse in my backyard!) and federal regulations are part of the picture, according to a 2009 Food and Water Watch report, “Where’s the Local Beef.”

The authors wrote that USDA regulations are skewed to support corporate giants like Tyson, Smithfield and Cargill that can afford expensive techniques and equipment now part of government inspection requirements. USDA inspectors begin with a live animal and end with a carcass. But beginning in the 1990s, the USDA also required facilities to have food safety plans for each segment of their operation, which inspectors audit. The decision put food safety in the hands of the operators running the plants and reduced USDA oversight “beyond what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer,” according to a 2000 review by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General. Here is the USDA’s Inspection 101 publication.

I asked Food and Water Watch’s Patty Lovera about how USDA staffing plays into problem. She said “They stand out in the budget,” she said, meaning the inspectors. “They have a target on them.”

Staffing is a problem, she added, “but it varies in different parts of the country. There are some USDA districts that suffer chronic inspector shortages and that’s where you hear about them having to visit multiple processing plants in a day, just to say they were there every day, but not spending a lot of time to really see what’s going on.”

I left all that out of my story. I knew nothing about the storm being kicked up by Food and Water Watch and a NY Times story, which elicited a strong response from the USDA. They refuted any suggestion that they are short-staffed and that staffing has anything to do with food safety concerns or the Rancho recall.  (It appears the NY Times has been a thorn for a while and just fyi, FSIS is an arm of the USDA.)

The question is how many inspectors are enough. Here are the numbers: USDA regulations are enforced by 7,800 inspectors responsible for overseeing the safety of billions of pounds of meat and poultry — 92.3 billion in 2011 — produced by 6,200 USDA-certified plants in the United States. (This, by the way, is all I ended up putting in the story. I  try to avoid getting stuck in the middle of arguments by considering the numbers, especially when I don’t have enough time to dig into the records and talk to operators at length before going to print.)

Here is the email from USDA and the response:

Good Afternoon – Recently, advocacy groups have alleged that fluctuations in food safety inspector staffing levels have led to food recalls and compromised food safety. FSIS posted a response to these false statements on the USDA blog at the link below. You are welcome to retweet this story as is or use the content in your own publication.

Here is what Aaron Lavallee, FSIS Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education, wrote:

Recently, the New York Times published an article claiming that job vacancies in the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are leading to more food recalls. That’s not true.  The fact is, vacancies within the agency do not mean there are less inspectors on the job in our nation’s meat plants.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.The New York Times article was based on misleading and inaccurate information, and to the paper’s credit it ultimately ran at least a partial correction.  The article was supposedly based on data from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by an outside group called Food & Water Watch-but Food & Water Watch had not yet received that FOIA report.  Yet, they told the Times they had received it, and the Times unfortunately reported faulty information without verification.The FOIA referenced in the article is actually just being released today.  You can view it here. The report will show that, at the end of Fiscal Year 2013, there was a vacancy rate of 7.08% among FSIS’ inspectors. Food & Water Watch claimed, and the New York Times reported, that inspectors in the Raleigh District faced an 11% vacancy rate. In fact, the vacancy rate there is currently 8.27%.Like all organizations, FSIS has a vacancy rate that fluctuates as inspectors leave work or retire.  FSIS is working to fill open positions. FSIS always prioritizes food safety inspection and dedicates significant resources toward ensuring that all plants have the required number of inspectors.  Again, if a plant does not have enough inspectors, it is illegal for that plant to operate.It is irresponsible to attempt to confuse FSIS vacancy rates with plant inspector shortages and then imply that meat and poultry products are less safe as a result.  There is no connection between recent recalls and FSIS vacancy rates, and any claims that these issues are linked are false.

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