Yesterday afternoon, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a blog written Aaron Lavallee in the public affairs office, who challenged assertions made by Food & Water Watch (that were subsequently printed in The New York Times last month) that inspector shortages were leading to problems for the agency’s inspection program.
On February 10, Food & Water Watch sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing concerns that inspector shortages were causing severe strains on the inspection program, pointing out that these shortages seemed to be related to the policy that FSIS adopted in 2012 to hire “temporary Inspectors” instead of permanent inspectors in anticipation of implementing a privatized poultry inspection system that would lead to the elimination of 800 permanent inspector positions. The temporary inspector hiring program has been less than successful as the agency has not been able to attract enough applicants to take the jobs. So, with open permanent inspector positions remaining vacant and no temporary inspectors to fill them, inspector shortages have developed all across the country.
In December 2013, Food & Water Watch did file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with FSIS for the vacancy rates by month during FY 2013, and has been making these annual requests since 2005. FSIS has normally responded within one month of the filing of these requests in the past, but this year, the agency did not respond until three months after it was filed and it chose to make it public on its own through Mr. Lavallee’s blog. Unfortunately, the information that Mr. Lavallee posted was not all of the information requested – we also asked for the numbers and plant locations for all of the temporary inspectors the agency had hired. That information was not provided in Mr. Lavallee’s blog.
We can only surmise that Mr. Lavallee was finally dispatched to write his blog a month after The New York Times article appeared because Food & Water Watch had recently discovered that FSIS had posted two different documents justifying its FY2015 budget request last week. On March 10, the agency’s FY2015 Explanatory Notes contained the following statement on page 23-12:
FSIS took steps to permanently reduce personnel through actions such as the modernization of poultry slaughter methods, consolidating 15 District Offices into 10, imposing hiring restrictions, improving efficiency through systems like PHIS, using shared services, reorganizing some staff functions and disbanding the Office of International Affairs to increase effectiveness for both the staff and field. FSIS also permitted its hire lag to increase in FY2013 to reduce salary costs. If the agency continued current operations, some of the staff reductions that the Agency has absorbed would not be sustainable, and it would be vital to the successful accomplishment of the Food Safety mission to back-fill these positions. However, due to anticipation of Poultry Slaughter Modernization rule publication in FY2014, the Agency has determined that it is not prudent to rehire the formerly filled positions at this time because the new methods for poultry slaughter requires fewer Federal in plant personnel. While this will continue short term staffing and scheduling issues, FSIS thinks that it can continue to operate effectively until it begins to implement modernization of poultry slaughter methods. In this manner FSIS will avoid hiring and then firing inspectors as Poultry Slaughter Modernization further decreases the available inspector positions and the overall Agency costs.
On March 11, the document containing the above statement disappeared and a new set of FY2015 Explanatory Notes appeared with a revised page 23-12.
It is obvious that the paragraph in the March 10 version of the Explanatory Notes corroborates Food & Water Watch’s assertion about the temporary inspector program. Food & Water Watch confronted USDA officials on March 15 with the discrepancy and asked for an explanation. On March 19, in a meeting with consumer group representatives, we asked agency officials again for an explanation. There were several different conflicting explanations offered:
- The language in the March 10, 2014 document had appeared in the FY 2014 Explanatory Notes and had not been removed when the FY 2015 Explanatory Notes were written. That was not true because that statement was never part of the FY 2014 Explanatory Notes;
- The language appeared in a May 2013 draft of the FY2015 Explanatory Notes, and was not in the final draft, so the wrong draft was posted on March 10, 2014;
- It was just a mistake. Everybody makes a mistake.
But the saga of the inspector shortages does not end there. It is true that Food & Water Watch did not provide the New York Times with the 11 percent vacancy rate for the Raleigh District from the response to a FOIA request. That information was verbally conveyed by the Raleigh District Manager to the FSIS inspectors’ union leadership during a January 2014 labor/management meeting. Food & Water Watch did provide the New York Times with the FY2012 vacancy rates that came as a result of a FOIA request. However, at another recent labor/management meeting with the Denver District Management, the vacancy rates for January 2014 were provided to the inspectors’ union leadership. That revealed the following vacancy rates by FSIS District:
- Alameda – 9.4%
- Denver – 14.4%
- Des Moines – 15.8%
- Springdale – 13.3%
- Dallas – 9.4%
- Chicago – 20.4%
- Philadelphia – 11.0%
- Raleigh – 12.8%
- Atlanta – 15.4%
- Jackson – 5.2%
- National rate – 12.4%
It is astounding to us that the FSIS leadership expends so much energy concocting schemes, coming up with excuses and covering up misdeeds when it should be making sure that our food supply is safe and providing the necessary support to its employees so they can do their jobs to protect the public. When asked about our February 10, 2014 letter, current FSIS Administrator Alfred Almanza (rumored to be the Obama Administration’s leading candidate to be nominated as USDA’s next Under Secretary for Food Safety), told the publication Food Chemical News (subscription only):
I started my career as a food inspector. Does anybody really believe that I would do anything to harm the ability of our food inspectors to be able to do their jobs every day? …. Food & Water Watch — when they get to be credible media — maybe I’ll start to read what they have to say, but I don’t have time to pay attention to that. I try to pay attention to the things that, in my opinion, protect my employees, protect their ability to perform tasks and protect public health every single day.
We do not know what role Mr. Almanza plays in writing and approving the FSIS budget request, but it is obvious that he has forgotten where he came from. Yes, Mr. Almanza – your current personnel policies are doing harm to the ability of your food inspectors to their jobs, and your agency’s March 10 budget document admitted it.