Washington, D.C.—Today, the national consumer advocacy organization Food & Water Watch sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack containing concrete examples of meat and poultry plants not receiving food safety inspections due to severe shortages of inspection personnel across the United States. 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.
“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. “We have lost confidence in the leadership at FSIS because it cannot be trusted to tell the truth or to manage the agency competently. The time has come for an overhaul of the FSIS leadership and for the Obama administration to make sure that the agency has enough resources to fulfill its statutory and regulatory obligations to ensure that we have safe and wholesome meat and poultry supplies.”
The shortages of inspection personnel are tied directly to a hiring restriction policy adopted by the agency 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 over the past two years 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.
Today’s letter follows up one that Food & Water Watch wrote to Secretary Vilsack in February 2014 that first alerted him to the problem. The department responded to that letter by posting a blog on March 19, 2014, by an FSIS Deputy Assistant Administrator, who vehemently disputed the allegations. The deputy administrator for the agency also testified before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on April 3, 2014, telling its members that there were no shortages of inspection personnel, and that all federal meat and poultry plants were receiving full inspections. Today’s letter exposes the inaccuracies of those statements as it cites internal agency e-mails and documents describing how the inspection system has been broken in direct violation of federal statutes and regulations.
Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-2500, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org.