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April 17th, 2014

USDA Continues to Deceive on Meat Inspections

By Tony Corbo

Food & Water Watch Food Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo

Further evidence that the USDA is dismantling the meat inspection system as we know it came in an email last night.

At 9:22 pm on April 16, 2014, I received an e-mail from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Office at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) containing a spreadsheet with the number of temporary inspectors the agency has hired and the locations where these temporary inspectors are currently working. The chart was a partial response to a FOIA request we filed on December 23, 2013 to learn where the temporary inspectors were being assigned in response to a job announcement that FSIS had posted, saying: “As the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) looks to transition through modernization and implementation of the New Poultry Slaughter Inspection System, the Agency is announcing temporary Food Inspector positions to facilitate the transition and to help ensure seamless implementation should the Agency decide to proceed with implementation of the new system.”

No one can remember the last time FSIS had advertised for temporary inspector positions, so we became curious as to how the agency was assigning these personnel.

Much to our surprise, the spreadsheet reveals that not only are temporary inspectors working in poultry slaughter facilities, but 35% of them are working in red meat slaughter facilities. (See column C, Establishment Number—all numbers followed by an “M” indicate a meat plant, and all numbers followed by a “P” indicate poultry.) In recent letters to both USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Congressman Robert Aderholt, chair of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agency Appropriations, Food & Water Watch pointed out that we were hearing that the temporary inspector hiring program was not meeting its goals and in fact exacerbating an already critical inspector shortage problem across the country. The information we received last night confirms that that the policy of not filling inspector vacancies with permanent employees is causing a distortion in the hiring practices at FSIS. Today, I am finding out that the scope of the temporary hiring is broader than what the spreadsheet is showing as I have received information identifying other meat and poultry plants where temporary inspectors have been hired that were not included in what I received last night.

We already know that the FSIS staff in Washington has problems distinguishing between animal species. They have granted equivalency status to privatized inspection systems in Canada and Australia for beef slaughter based on an unevaluated privatized hog slaughter pilot project being run in five hog slaughter facilities in the U.S. that has been roundly criticized by both USDA’s own Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The agency’s Washington staff issued a directive last year to its inspectors assigned to horse slaughter facilities to code their inspection activities as if they were working in goat slaughter facilities. Now, we find that temporary inspectors being hired under the guise of a privatized poultry inspection rule that has not been finalized are actually being assigned to beef and hog slaughter facilities. The implication is clear: it’s not about phasing out permanent inspectors because of pending plans to implement the rule; it’s about cutting the food safety inspection budget by essentially contracting out what were previously paid, professional career positions with low-paid temps. But we can ill afford the consequences of weakened food safety inspections.

This important public health agency is out of control. Someone needs to bring order to it because the current FSIS leadership has failed.

4 Comments on USDA Continues to Deceive on Meat Inspections

  1. Jan says:

    First of all, not all “M” plants are necessarily meat slaughter only plants, many are meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants. Secondly, you left out the clause noted in the Directive you shared that:

    NOTE: “GOAT” is being used at this time in order to capture necessary information in PHIS relative to equine. FSIS will manage PHIS results in a manner to discern goat data separately from equine data until such time that PHIS is modified to accommodate equine data entry. FSIS will rely upon the grant of inspection to discern which establishments in PHIS slaughter goat versus equine.

    All equine plants would have an E before the establishment number, easily differentiating it from other plants, and IF equine slaughter was to begin, it also states in the Directive that an Equine slaughter facility cannot slaughter many other livestock species, and goats.

  2. JimBob says:

    Well put Jan……On the other topic in the article the author has actually given me more information on the status of the newly hired full time temps than what my own employer will tell me and the other employees in this agency. Its my theory that when HIMP is implemented as the poultry plants come on-board with it the inspectors at those establishments will then be placed in the red meat plants and the full time temps will then be booted out the door (adios, goodbye). As a former online inspector in both red meat and poultry (GS 10 now) I actually feel some compassion for the newly hired underpaid temp employees, they get the annual leave and sick leave from what I was told but not much else, paid little and did read after one year they can pay the full share of the health insurance premium if they want to which they won’t be able to afford, I can give exact numbers on the cost and its high enough for me as it is, my share now is 150 every two weeks and I think the govt is paying almost double that or so my statement claims. When I began to see the light and what was to come in the agency I started applying to promote up the ladder and went anywhere I could to move up and now made it to a GS 10 so hopefully my job is secure for next 27yrs then I’m gone. I can only imagine the circus atmosphere in the red meat plants now with all the new temps.

  3. Jan says:

    Congrats on your promotion JimBob! Also,with any industry, when competent hard working employees are hired as temps, by the time their temp arrangement is up, there is usually many positions available for permanent hire, sometimes requiring a relocation, but hey, change is good a lot of times!

  4. Tony Corbo says:

    Thank you very much for your comments. I understand that some plants slaughter and process both meat and poultry. That is why in the FSIS Meat, Poultry, Egg Product Inspection Directory (http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/a5c2b5c8-92e0-4565-8999-f2fb75bfdb05/MPI_Directory_Establishment_Number.pdf?MOD=AJPERES), if a federal establishment slaughters and processes both red meat and poultry, that establishment will have two different numbers. For example, there is a Pilgrims Pride plant located in Timberville, VA that has two establishment numbers P 56 and M 56 indicating that it slaughters and processes both types of meat. As you know, if that plant puts poultry products into commerce, the USDA inspection legend on those products would carry the number P56; on red meat products, the inspection legend would carry the number M56. The spreadsheet cited in my blog came directly from the FSIS FOIA Office. I did not alter what they sent me. If there were federal establishments listed in that spreadsheet that slaughtered and processed both red meat and poultry, the agency did not indicate that fact in its response to me. However, it is an undisputed fact that FSIS has hired temporary inspectors to work in federal establishments that slaughter and process red meat which was not the original intent of the temporary inspection hiring program when it was first announced.

    Regarding the issue of coding equines as goats, I wrote a blog on August 20, 2013 (http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/blogs/i-have-known-about-the-dysfunctional-computer-system-featured-in-this-article-for-quite-some-time-and-have-held-back-on-railing-against-it-but-this-times-article-is-the-last-straw-now-im-go/) pointing out the many problems with the $141.48 million Public Health Information System. One of those problems was highlighted when the agency policy staff issued Directive 6130.1 on equine slaughter on June 28, 2013. That directive instructed inspection personnel assigned to equine slaughter facilities to code their activities under the “goat” categories in PHIS. One would think that after spending millions of dollars on a “modernized” information technology system that all of the amenable species categories would have already been programmed into the system. But no — not with this agency. I even brought the issue to the attention of the FSIS Administrator in July 2013 who said that the coding issue would be fixed in the directive. After much ridicule, on December 18, 2013, FSIS issued Directive 6130.1, revision 1, in which the PHIS coding issue was resolved. By the way, until June 28, 2013, some inspection personnel called me the “Italian Stallion.” Thanks to FSIS, I am now known as the “Italian Billy Goat.”

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