July 15, 2024

Food & Water Watch Exposes FSIS Mismanagement

Food & Water Watch sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack today containing examples of meat and poultry plants that have not been inspected because of severe shortages of government food inspection personnel. These examples “directly contradict statements made by high-ranking officials of the Food Safety and Inspection service (FSIS), both on USDA’s website and before Congress.”

The letter states, “some products under the jurisdiction of USDA are entering commerce without the benefit of inspection, even though their packaging displays the ‘Inspected and Passed’ USDA inspection legend.” USDA is responsible for overseeing the safety of the nation’s meat, poultry, and egg supply.

USDA has been hiring temporary inspectors since the spring of 2012 and freezing the hiring of permanent inspection personnel. This has caused a large number of vacancies and puts a strain on the agency, making it unable to meet its regulatory responsibilities. An increasing number of recalls announced by the USDA, stating that products have not been inspected, is testament to that fact.

The restriction in hiring is related to the agency’s new poultry inspection rule, known as HIMP, which replaces federal inspectors with company employees as well as increases line speeds for poultry inspection. Food safety advocates have been highly critical of that rule, stating that using company employees, who are less likely to criticize their employer, makes the public more vulnerable to foodborne illness outbreaks.

The letter details the contents of emailsĀ from FSIS inspectors to USDA which talk about inspection vacancies and the problems they are causing. One, dated July 7, 2014, states that a FSIS front line supervisor “describes ‘severe’ inspection staffing shortages in Alabama and pleading with their subordinates to find ways to cover their assignments without requesting the assistance of relief inspectors.” Another details how an FSIS inspector in Indiana was told not to visit processing plants so that slaughter assignments could be covered.

The letter ends by saying, “we have lost confidence in the agency because its leaders cannot be trusted to tell the truth and on the current course it is heading public health is being placed in jeopardy.” According to Food & WAter Watch, the inspection system “has been broken in direct violation of federal statutes and regulations.”

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