Health and Fitness

New Documents Reveal Major Flaws in Nation’s Food Safety Inspection System

Records obtained by Food & Water Watch show that food safety inspectors are overworked, and it’s threatening our nation’s food supply.

Washington, D.C.—(ENEWSPF)–November 23, 2015.  New documents released today by the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch reveal that inspectors who work for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are unable to adequately perform their jobs due to understaffing, thereby undermining the safety of our nation’s food supply.

The records released by Food & Water Watch show just how dire the situation is in many plants that fall under FSIS jurisdiction. 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 the period August 1, 2014 through July 31, 2015, revealing that for meat and poultry, inadequate staffing was often to blame.

“We should recognize the hardworking USDA inspectors who are trying to keep our food supply safe during this holiday season under very trying circumstances,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. Through no fault of their own, 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. 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.”

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 implemented. 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.

FSIS leadership recently announced its intent to propose a new rule that would extend the privatized inspection model to hog slaughter. Among the plants that have the highest number of not-performed codes recorded are two establishments – the Hormel plant in Fremont, Nebraska (M199N) and the Hormel plant (Quality Pork Processors) in Austin, Minnesota (M1620)— that are currently participating in a pilot project testing the new inspection model for pork.

Moreover, problems with the controversial Public Health Information System (PHIS) have further exacerbated the inability of inspectors to complete their assignments.  In a recent audit report released by USDA’s Office of Inspector General, FSIS was severely criticized for the manner in which the new information technology system was implemented. Among the criticisms leveled against the agency was that it didn’t encourage inspectors to record why they could not complete assigned inspection tasks in the IT system.

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 own 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 to make sure that meat and poultry inspection get the necessary resources to provide continuous government inspection of meat and poultry products.”

Read the backgrounder here.

Chart 1: Frequency of “not performed” task codes listed in PHIS by establishment number, August 1, 2014 through July 31, 2015. Full list of not performed tasks available on request.

Chart 2:  The top thirty plants listed for select categories of “not performed” codes, August 1, 2014 through July 31, 2015.