Published September 6th, 2014 at 6:00 AM
In one of the most far reaching changes in U.S. meat inspection history, federal regulators this fall will allow poultry plant employees — instead of USDA inspectors — to help determine whether chicken is contaminated or safe to eat, a move critics fear could spread to beef and pork processing plants.
Indeed, a severe shortage of federal inspectors in slaughterhouses is so widespread that critics and some inspectors claim some meat in supermarkets stamped as “USDA inspected” may never have been inspected at all.
HOOKER, Okla. – Other girls dreamed of being doctors or teachers, but Jennifer Brdar’s dream job was to be a meat inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Her father and uncles had worked in meat plants, and Brdar made it her self-appointed mission to watch out for unwary consumers, making sure the meat on their dinner tables was clean and disease free.
After earning an associate’s degree in meat science, Brdar (pronounced Ber-dar) was hired in March as a temporary federal meat inspector at a big beef packing operation — Plant M208A, the USDA calls it — just up the road in Liberal, Kansas.
She lasted barely a month.
The meat inspection agency wasn’t doing its job, Brdar explained, allowing problem meat that could sicken consumers to enter the marketplace.
Brdar said her training was so poor that she was not told how to deal with abnormalities that could lead to illnesses. She added that her bosses often told her to ignore such problems.
In the end, she walked away frustrated and dispirited.
“It was like being kicked in the stomach,” she said tearfully. “Like watching every dream you had be shattered.”
Federal inspectors have been standing watch in American meat plants for more than a century, ever since Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” sparked consumer outrage when it was first published in 1905 by a newsletter in Girard, Kansas.
But food safety advocates, members of Congress and even some inspectors contend the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which now employs 7,500 meat inspectors nationwide, is in disarray.
The problems grew out of one of the most far-reaching changes in U.S. meat inspection history, in which federal regulators this fall will allow poultry plant employees — instead of USDA inspectors — to help determine whether chicken is wholesome and safe to eat.
It’s a move critics see as a “privatization” of meat inspection that they fear could spread to beef and pork.
Meanwhile, years of preparations for the October 24 changeover have helped generate what critics see as a severe shortage of federal inspectors in all kinds of slaughterhouses nationwide, a shortage so widespread that inspectors and food safety advocates say some meat in supermarkets stamped as “USDA inspected” may never have been inspected at all.
The agency responded to only about half the written questions posed by the Hale Center for Journalism.
The agency said it has been hard at work modernizing the inspection system, consolidating district offices to improve management and trying to communicate better with the public and its inspectors.
But officials insist that the system is still effective — and getting even more effective — and that consumers and others will have a chance to comment on any future changes.
“The Food Safety and Inspection Service is modernizing all aspects of our operations to better prevent foodborne illness by focusing on preventing rather than reacting to contamination and other food safety hazards,” the statement said.
There has been a long-running debate between food advocacy groups and the agency over current vacancy rates among inspectors. Those rates have been reported as running anywhere from 4 percent to more than 8 percent.
They said USDA inspectors will continue to inspect carcasses at poultry plants, as required by federal law.
But the agency acknowledges that the new rule would phase out up to 630 poultry inspector positions nationwide and replace them with poultry plant employees.
To prepare for that, about three years ago, the agency instituted partial hiring freezes and made other staffing changes, one of which led the agency to hire temporary inspectors such as Brdar to work in poultry and red meat plants.
Those changes, along with existing nationwide staff shortages, mean some inspectors must drive from plant to plant, working up to 80 hours a week to keep up with workloads so heavy that federal auditors fear they could lead to mistakes.
Staffing shortages are so widespread that some meat stamped in the supermarket as USDA inspected is never inspected at all, some food safety advocates insist.
In fact, critics cite such cutbacks as a contributing factor in the latest large beef recall, after a California plant processed 180 diseased or condemned cattle.
USDA officials deny that staffing shortages lead to the problems. They instead insist that the plant, owned by Rancho Feeding Corp., “circumvented” the inspection process.
Last month, federal prosecutors indicted the owners of the plant after the USDA recalled 8.7 million pounds of beef and veal.
“The system will definitely be on life support,” after the new chicken rule takes effect, said Stan Painter, a top official with the union that represents federal meat inspectors.
A spokesperson for the American Meat Institute said the inspection system is still “working effectively.” But she acknowledged that inspector shortages have required some plants to slow production.
The National Chicken Council maintains that, while there have been some inspector shortages, the inspection agency has been quick to try and resolve them.
Even though foodborne illnesses are down, 48 million Americans still fall ill from foodborne pathogens every year, causing 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
Seafood is responsible for nearly 20 percent of those illnesses, followed by poultry (7.4 percent) and beef (5.2 percent).
When Brdar was hired as a $15.50-an-hour temporary inspector at the National Beef Packing plant in Liberal, she was told her job would last no more than two years.
The USDA did not want to hire permanent workers, Brdar was told, because they were saving those positions for former chicken plant inspectors who would need to transfer to new jobs.
A Mennonite, Brdar said her religious beliefs played a role in her career choice and her decision to leave the job when it failed to meet her expectations.
“This was a way to help make lives better,” she said. “Part of it was because of social justice, trying to insure that the public doesn’t get hurt.”
National Beef officials declined to discuss Brdar’s complaints, referring questions to the USDA. The department also failed to respond.
Brdar and other inspectors around the country, many of whom asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from the agency, said the system is nearing a breaking point.
They contend the agency is having trouble attracting applicants, and that the temporary jobs pay little and offer inadequate training. The positions are also exempt from union membership.
U.S. Rep. Rosa Delauro, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee, said her office has received emails from many inspectors who are concerned about the new chicken rule and the impact staffing shortages may have on food safety.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen it in 15 years,” said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit food safety advocacy group.
Corbo has unearthed internal agency emails supporting his assertion.
Documents he shared with the Hale Center include an email in early July from Winston Felton, an Alabama-based agency supervisor, that was marked “high importance; do not post or circulate.”
Under the subject line “staffing while under severe staffing shortages,” Felton said, “We are experiencing severe staffing shortages and relief support is very difficult throughout our district.
“We are having to make some difficult decisions on staffing as we work our way through this Crunch,” he added.
Felton declined to discuss the email and referred questions to his supervisors. The department also did not respond.
A 30-year poultry inspector in southern Missouri, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from his agency, said: “I’ve never seen it this bad…. they won’t hire people to fill vacancies, so we have inspectors working 80 hours a week and driving hundreds of miles a day to get from plant to plant, just to cover vacant positions.”
One inspector added, “Bottom line, we don’t regulate the meat companies; they regulate us…. The system is taking us out of the plants and that is what they (meat companies) want.”
Overtime for many meat inspectors has continued, despite warnings from federal auditors that they are already so overworked that the long hours “could impair food safety.”
“Despite the argument that overworked employees are more likely to commit errors, some … inspectors are working many hours above a normal 80 hour per two-week pay period,” auditors for the USDA’s inspector general found last year.
When they took their findings to top officials of the meat inspection agency, the auditors said, agency officials said they had no idea their inspectors were overworked.
But they “doubted” the long hours would affect inspector performance.
Federal workplace safety officials disagree. Their research showed that long hours lead to “increased risk of …error, injuries, or accidents.”
As recently as last month, federal auditors identified long hours for those inspectors as an important management challenge for the agency because it is “critical to public safety.”
Inspector shortages have become such a problem that the agency has shifted some higher-paid veterinarians into meat inspection positions to take up the slack.
“In 2012, I started working at the (meat inspector) job that I had previously supervised,” said Ralph Tester, a 25-year veterinarian supervisor who is no longer with the agency. “I’d be a supervisor one week and an inspector the next.”
Tester said he was fired earlier this year after he billed the agency for sleeping in his personal travel trailer because he was unable to find a motel room during an out-of-town assignment.
“They accused me of fraud,” Tester said. “In the last few years, they have been trying to cut employees any way they can.”
Yet, unlike many other inspectors, Tester believes the impending poultry rule may actually work well for consumers because the remaining federal inspectors in chicken plants will be doing more important work, such as testing for bacteria in the meat.
For more than a decade, the USDA — with encouragement from the poultry industry and fierce opposition from inspectors and consumer groups — has been pushing for big changes in the way poultry is inspected.
Top inspection officials in Washington said they’ve been using too much manpower visually inspecting every chicken carcass, looking for problems on the surface of the meat that they said usually pose only minimal food safety risks.
In January 2012, the USDA asked for public comment on a proposal that would change that practice by reassigning inspectors to more important tasks, such as more laboratory testing for foodborne pathogens that make people sick.
The proposal would also have allowed for a 40 percent reduction in federal poultry inspectors and a 20 percent increase in line processing speeds — from 140 to 175 birds a minute — a change that food safety advocates feared could lead to more contamination.
The chicken industry embraced the idea, but few others did, including many of the 175,000 people who posted mostly negative comments on the USDA’s website.
Six federal meat inspectors who had seen the new plan in place at pilot plants put their careers on the line by stepping forward to predict the new rule would put consumers at risk.
And congressional auditors questioned data the inspection agency used to argue that the new system would actually reduce poultry-related food poisonings.
Despite all the questions, the agency still proposed nearly $10 million in cuts to its $1 billion budget in April, reflecting the estimated cost savings expected from the new rule.
The USDA insisted it took the complaints into consideration in crafting a new, revised rule that it submitted to the White House July 10.
Three weeks later, the Obama administration approved it.
The USDA maintains its new revised poultry inspection system will reduce the amount of tainted chicken and is “a critical step forward in making chicken and turkey products safer for Americans to eat.”
They said the new rule also requires poultry companies to work harder to control salmonella and other harmful bacteria.
But while the department backed off on a measure that chicken industry had strongly supported — higher line speeds — it retained a feature that food safety advocates disliked most: fewer federal inspectors.
As a result, the agency ended up with a rule that food industry and food safety advocates find lacking, and that critics say could still wreak havoc within inspection ranks.
“Politics have trumped sound science” the National Chicken Council said of lower line speeds in the new rules. Government regulation has not stopped poultry plants in such places as Brazil or Canada from running at 200 birds a minute, they pointed out, and it should not have done so in the United States either.
Yet there are still some features of the revised rules that the chicken industry likes, such as making better use of fewer USDA inspectors.
Ashley Peterson, the chicken council’s head of scientific and regulatory affairs, said consumers can take solace in the fact that the rule requires poultry plants to test for harmful bacteria. But she acknowledged that it also allows poultry companies to keep the results of those tests secret from consumers and not subject to federal open records laws.
“The industry is doing all it can to protect public health. It’s in our best interest to do so,” Peterson noted.
But for food safety advocates such as Corbo and union leaders, the revised rule remains troublesome.
Testing for bacteria is laudable, they acknowledged, but until the USDA establishes a zero tolerance for salmonella — as it has done for dangerous bacteria found in beef — the agency still has relatively limited power to control those bacteria.
Meat inspection officials counter that, even if salmonella is not an adulterant, they still have the power to suspend operations at a plant or take other action if test results show an increase in “enteric pathogens” overall.
Agency officials also noted that chicken plant employees who replace USDA inspectors will still be overseen by the remaining federal inspectors.
But Painter characterized it as window dressing. “No USDA inspector will be looking at what company people do,” he predicted.
Indeed, Dayna Coonce, a 30-year USDA poultry inspector in Missouri, is so concerned about the new rule she said: “I’m telling my friends to quit eating chicken after it goes into effect.”
Fewer inspectors in poultry slaughter facilities “is a recipe for more foodborne illness and more people in the hospital,” said U.S. Rep. Delauro and Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat, and the only microbiologist in Congress.
Even with the retrenchment by the USDA on line speeds, Food and Water Watch calls the new rule “a gift from the Obama administration to the industry.”
Recent foodborne illnesses and other problems attributed to chicken consumption are not lost on such advocates.
In early July, Delauro called on the USDA to shut down all Foster Farms poultry processing facilities until an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella that had sickened 600 people in 29 states had ended.
A recent scandal involving Chinese chicken raised additional questions.
In August 2013, USDA’s meat inspection division re-certified that the People’s Republic of China had a food safety inspection program that was “equivalent” to the one in the United States, a ruling that allowed China to export processed poultry for U.S. consumption.
But this summer, an undercover investigation by Chinese journalists found that one of those Chinese-inspected plants — American-owned Shanghai Husi Food Co. Ltd. — had been forging production dates and selling long-expired beef and chicken to McDonald’s, KFC and other restaurants overseas.
The plant’s Illinois-based owner, OSI Group, later said “We are taking what happened at Husi Shanghai seriously and consider the actions of those involved completely unacceptable.”
At one time, USDA meat inspection officials “had the heads of the American meat industry on speed dial,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit food safety watchdog.
She said agency officials now meet regularly with consumer groups, but she added, that does not mean meat industry officials have lost their say in how the agency operates.
Whether the meat industry likes it or not, she said, the law hasn’t changed since Sinclair’s “Jungle” was published, and it still requires that every animal carcass be checked by an inspector.
Despite their claims to the contrary, she said, USDA meat inspection officials are failing to live up to that requirement, “and that is a huge problem for the agency.”
One possible result, DeWaal added, is that rates of hospitalization for antibiotic-resistant salmonella — from chicken and other foods — are higher than ever.
That’s why DeWaal’s organization sued the agency earlier this year to force it to acknowledge that antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella in meat and poultry should be declared adulterants, banning them from sale to the public.
That’s what the agency did with a deadly form of E. coli bacteria in the early 1990s, after hundreds of people became ill from eating fast food hamburgers and four children died.
As a result, E. coli–related illnesses from beef dropped sharply.
DeWaal’s organization argued in its lawsuit that the government has delayed action on the issue for three years, during which time more than 600 consumers have fallen ill from difficult-to-treat strains of antibiotic-resistant salmonella.
USDA officials wrote DeWaal at the end of July — more than three years after her organization first petitioned them to declare antibiotic-resistant salmonella as an adulterant — arguing there isn’t enough proof that the those strains of the bacteria are indeed adulterants.
Most meat inspectors understand that rule changes, such as the one for poultry plants, are often aimed at saving the industry money as much as at protecting consumer safety, said Carol Tucker-Foreman, a food safety advocate who ran the inspection agency under the Carter Administration.
Tucker-Foreman, who now oversees the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute, said there are several thousand fewer inspectors today than there were under her watch, yet they are inspecting more meat than ever.
In those intervening years, the volume and speed of processing animals in meatpacking plants also has accelerated.
Meanwhile, the USDA has suggested that Brdar reapply for a new temporary inspection position at a different plant, but she has declined.
She said she’d rather give up her “dream job” than to work for an agency that she believes is failing to live up to its mission to protect the public.
“Call me old school,” Brdar wrote in her resignation letter to the USDA, “but I took my vow seriously only to feel like it’s a mockery.”