USDA Records Reveal Staffing Shortages Undermining Food Safety

An analysis of USDA records documenting the impact of vacancies in the ranks of USDA inspectors show that inadequate staffing has resulted in many missed inspection tasks.


Food System

Washington, D.C.— Today, the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch released an analysis of USDA records documenting the impact of long-standing vacancies in the ranks of USDA meat and poultry inspectors. This release comes just hours before officials from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are due to discuss their budget request for FY2016 before the House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee. These records, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, document the number of inspection tasks that were not performed and the most common reasons why over a two-year period, revealing that for meat and poultry, inadequate staffing and turn around times were often to blame.

The documents show that half of the FSIS districts were running double-digit vacancy rates for permanent full time FSIS inspectors for most of FY 2014, and that the number of inspection procedures performed by FSIS inspectors has also declined over the past four years. According to the enforcement reports published by the agency, in FY 2010, 8,048,068 inspection verification procedures were performed. Yet in FY 2014 under the new Public Health Information System (PHIS), that had dropped to 6,795,731 inspection verification procedures – a 15.6 percent decrease. The number of non-compliance reports issued under PHIS decreased by 14 percent when comparing the same two time periods.

“Consumers are at risk thanks to the Obama’s administration’s decision to starve the FSIS inspection program, which has led to violations of the continuous inspection mandate,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “This data confirms what we and inspectors have been saying to the USDA for several years now – long-term inspector shortages are putting consumers at risk.”

The shortages of USDA inspection personnel are tied directly to a hiring restriction policy adopted in 2012 in anticipation of a controversial rule that would radically change the manner in which poultry is inspected. The hiring policy capped the number of permanent federal inspectors. Any vacancies that have developed were to have been filled with “temporary” inspectors who could be terminated when the new rule was finalized. The “temporary” inspector-hiring program has not achieved its goals and has left most parts of the country short of USDA inspectors. Under the new rule, the role of federal inspectors in poultry plants is reduced, turning those responsibilities over to the companies to police themselves. Moreover, problems with the controversial PHIS have further exacerbated the inability of inspectors to complete their assignments.

Today’s analysis follows multiple efforts by Food & Water Watch to alert USDA to this problem. Rather than addressing the shortages, agency leadership has tried to deny the existence of shortages or downplay their impact.

“USDA’s data tells the story—inspector shortages mean that some meat and poultry products are not being adequately inspected,” said Hauter.“It is time for Congress and USDA make sure that meat and poultry inspection get the necessary resources to provide continuous government inspection of meat and poultry products.”

Read the backgrounder.

  • Chart 1: Frequency of “not performed” task codes listed in PHIS by establishment number, June 2012 through July 2014. Full list of not performed tasks available on request.
  • Chart 2:  The top thirty plants listed for select categories of “not performed” codes, June 2012 through July 2014.
  • Chart 3: Summary of FSIS tables on inspector shortages for FY 2014.  Full set of tables received from FSIS available on request.