WASHINGTON Federal meat inspectors, who were blamed in part for the 143-million-pound beef recall from a processor that slaughtered potentially diseased “downer” cattle, are so understaffed that some are responsible for up to 24 plants in regions too big to permit required inspections, lawmakers learned this month.
Three-fourths of surveyed U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors indicated that the geographical expanse of their territories was such that they could not make daily visits to their plants, as required, Stanley Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Local Unions, told a House panel.
And when the USDA overseers did make inspections, the speed of processing lines made contamination difficult to detect, he added.
“The bottom line is that if plant management creates a culture for their employees to skirt around [Food Safety and Inspection Service] regulations, they can usually find a way to do it, because the inspection personnel are usually outnumbered,” the Wall Street Journal quoted Painter, a 22-year FSIS veteran, as telling the domestic-policy panel of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Thousands of restaurants nationwide were caught up in trace-back audits following the Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Co. recall in February, including scores of chains and independents in California that were identified on a state-run online database.
The USDA has said that the two-year output from Chino, Calif.-based Hallmark/Westland was safe, though the agency conceded that there were violations of rules designed to protect against the potential transmission to humans of mad cow disease. Agency officials said operations were suspended at 66 plants last year, including one linked to a recall last October of 22 million pounds of E. coli-tainted ground beef.
Congressional watchdogs testified that the number of FSIS inspectors has decreased over the past 12 years, even as funding for the agency was increased. USDA officials conceded that the food safety inspection service had become top-heavy with management at the expense of field inspectors, but that the number of managers was being reduced.
Painter told the House panelists that whistle-blowers in the FSIS can become targets of retaliation within the agency, and that inspectors sometimes are told not to record violations.