USDA Inspectors Can’t Keep Up

In the LA Times, Victoria Kim follows up on the issue of USDA inspections related to the record-setting beef recall. The terrible practices caught on tape at the Hallmark slaughterhouse evidently occurred under the nose of USDA inspectors, and Kim’s article explains how this can happen:

Slaughterhouse workers watch every move of federal inspectors. They know when they take bathroom breaks. They use the radio to alert one another to the inspector’s every step. They even assign the pretty talkative woman to work next to the inspector to distract him from his mission to safeguard the nation’s food supply. …

One USDA inspector, who asked not to be named because he is employed by the Inspection Service, said the agency did not have the adequate staff and resources to enforce multiple regulations on meat production given workers’ efforts to dodge oversight.

“They know where I’m at. If I’m headed to the plant, they’ve got the radios to say, ‘This guy’s headed out to the pens,’ ” he said.

Slaughterhouse employees often struck up conversations with inspectors to keep them from going to parts of the plant where workers were doing something against regulation, the inspector said. At Hallmark/Westland, five on-site inspectors oversaw around 100 employees.

But with limited staff, monitoring the workers’ treatment of animals often took a back seat to inspecting the carcasses of cattle after slaughter.

“If you look on paper, [the inspections are] getting done, but we’re not given the ability to do the zero-tolerance audits,” said the inspector, who has worked for the USDA for more than 15 years.

At one point last year, seven of the 24 inspection positions at a large Midwestern slaughterhouse were vacant, said the inspector, adding that staff shortages began about three years ago. With the limited number of personnel, inspectors are routinely outwitted by slaughterhouse workers, he said.

The industry response is typical:

Meat industry representatives said the $133-billion processing and packing industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the country and has made numerous changes in how animals are treated.

“Obviously we had a system failure here,” said American Meat Institute spokeswoman Janet Riley. “However, we will not accept it as a poster child for our industry. It’s absolutely not how we operate.”

Being heavily regulated obviously doesn’t mean producing safe products, if companies have developed ways to evade detection of unlawful practices.

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