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FSIS inspectors are really a bright spot in this pandemic, says Dr. Mindy M. Brashears, U.S. under secretary of food safety.

Chuck Jolley

May 16, 2020

13 Min Read
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Smithfield put additional safety measures in place to protect workers from spreading and contracting COVID-19. Smithfield

A quote from Hamlet: "Is it nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them?"

Slings and arrows are the ancient weapons of war, of course. The term 'outrageous' indicates the most extreme fortune in Shakespeare's mind; and fortune can be any kind of luck, good or bad.

It's a phrase sums up the plight of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). With so many special interest groups vying for a seat at the massive 1400 Independence Avenue building, many with painfully conflicting demands, suffering a constant hail of slings and arrows were part of the job but today's confrontational blood politics suggest some of that incoming fire might be nuclear. Fortunately, Dr. Mindy M. Brashears, undersecretary, food safety, and her boss, USDA secretary Sonny Perdue, are precluded by the Constitution and good manners from taking up arms against that sea of troubles.

Not so long ago – around the turn of the century - FSIS announced a change in meat plant inspection, pulling back line inspectors and ending the century-old 'scratch and sniff' inspection system to conduct science-based testing. Plant personnel was asked to take over visual inspection. The idea, as explained to me in those early days by Al Almanza, who was acting deputy under secretary for food safety and FSIS administrator at the time, was to make FSIS responsible for food safety and let the plant handle what he called quality control. "It's easy to see bruising, broken bones and product defects," he said. "You can't see bacteria while standing 3 or 4 ft. from a chicken carcass."

And then came COVID-19, as explosive a political and social time bomb as most of us have ever seen. Meat plants soon became hot spots with thousands of workers testing positive among more than half a million employees. As of the closing days of April, 4, 913 meat and poultry plant workers in 115 plants in 19 states had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 20 people died, said the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

At the same time, 145 FSIS field employees were absent from work due to COVID-19 diagnoses, and another 130 were under self-quarantine due to exposure to the virus, according to FSIS. Three had died from the disease. Significant absenteeism by such a critical workforce sets off food safety alarms across the nation,

I was curious about what was happening with the current state of meat inspection. First. we’ve had more than a decade's worth of hard data. Second, and more urgently, though, what was FSIS doing to combat the ill-effects of COVID-19? I asked Brashears. She was anxious to 'set the record straight' by responding to the slings and arrows being hurled at her organization, especially the negative comments a few news sources were making about their COVID-19 actions.

Q. FSIS has been working hard to update its various rules and regulations, taking actions that are often controversial. One of the first big steps of the 21st century was a major change in inspection. FSIS inspectors were pulled back from on-line actions, turning much of what they used to do to company employed line-workers. Also, part of that action was allowing an increase in line speeds. The New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) allows line speeds of up to 140 birds per minute under certain conditions. Opponents were adamant that it was dangerous to employees as well as public health. How is it working? Have we seen a spike in on-the-job injuries or an increase food safety problems as a result?

A. Over the last couple of decades, FSIS’s commitment to using the best science available to protect the American food supply has driven the modernization of our inspection systems, policies and the use of scientific approaches. We are taking a holistic approach to modernization to improve how we do business and fulfill our mission. FSIS inspectors will continue to conduct 100% carcass-by-carcass inspection. We are modernizing and applying 21st century principles to keep our food supply safe.

Before going into what the data is saying, I want to remind your readers that FSIS had been piloting this modernized inspection system for the past 20 years. The data was always clear; the system worked. The misinformation that was spread by opponents was nothing more than rhetoric and baseless conjectures and was definitely not based on science or data. In regards to your question about what we are seeing now, the answer is simple, we are seeing what we have seen for 20 years – the modernized system of inspection works.

NPIS is designed to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, specifically Salmonella, by focusing FSIS inspection activities on those tasks that reduce contamination on chicken and turkey products. By revising current procedures and removing outdated regulatory requirements that do not help combat foodborne illness, the result is a more efficient and effective food safety system. FSIS inspectors are performing approximately four times more offline verification tasks for contamination in NPIS establishments than in non-NPIS establishments. In plants that adopt NPIS, there is additional flexibility that can foster food safety innovation, and the current data shows that NPIS, coupled with Salmonella Performance Standards, is successful. The agency will continue to track FSIS carcass Salmonella percent positives as more establishments convert to NPIS.

Poultry establishments continue to convert to NPIS, allowing for a more meaningful comparison between NPIS and non-NPIS establishments. A preliminary analysis found no statistically significant difference in the proportion of establishments that fail to meet carcass Salmonella performance standards between those operating under NPIS and those operating under the traditional inspection system. This provides supporting empirical evidence independent of the risk assessment model that, in practice, the NPIS provides an equivalent level of food safety protection compared to traditional inspection. FSIS will continue to evaluate the public health impact associated with NPIS as more establishments convert and experience is gained with operating under NPIS.

For data on on-the-job-injuries, please reach out to OSHA in the Department of Labor. OSHA is the federal agency with the expertise and regulatory authority to handle worker safety issues.

Q. One of the sticking points for opponents was 'self-certification' – allowing a plant to claim it met all the requirements for NPIS. It was something that gave me an extra moment when I first heard about it. Would you clarify how it is supposed to work? And is it working?

A. This is not something that FSIS does; there is not a "self-certification" process that allows plants to claim they have met all NPIS requirements. FSIS has inspectors in NPIS and non-NPIS establishments every day to inspect and verify that the poultry products are safe and wholesome.

Q. Let's talk about the impact of COVID-19. Just a few days ago, CNN Business reported, "The U.S. has about 2,700 slaughter plants, 800 of which are federally inspected. The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers, has said that at least 13 processing plants have closed over the past two months, resulting in a 25% reduction in pork slaughter capacity and 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity." USA Today reported that more than 2,200 employees in 48 plants had tested positive. Those are grim and growing numbers. How are FSIS inspectors doing? And what are you doing to help protect them?

A. There are presently 1,164 federally inspected slaughter establishments in the Public Health Information System (PHIS).

During these challenging times, FSIS is focused on the safety of our workforce and providing essential inspection services to keep meat and poultry on the dinner table. Our dedicated personnel are on the job on behalf of the American people every day, so that consumers can continue to enjoy a safe supply of meat and poultry products.

We are supporting employees who are in high-risk categories, as outlined by CDC, from COVID-19 (due to age or underlying medical conditions) by allowing them to self-certify with their supervisor, thus removing themselves from daily inspection operations. However, they still maintain their full pay and benefits.

In the early days of the pandemic, FSIS was in the same situation as everyone else in the country in that face coverings were impossible to acquire. To provide agency personnel with immediate solutions given the lack of available masks in the supply chain, on April 9, 2020, FSIS began reimbursing our employees up to $50 for the purchase of face coverings or supplies to make their own face coverings. This allowed employees more latitude to select a face covering of their preference, including style and fit.

Many establishments are providing inspection program personnel (IPP) with the same face coverings that they are providing their own plant-personnel, just as they provide hair nets and beard nets. In the cases where the establishments are not providing IPP with face coverings, FSIS has a variety of face coverings, face masks, and face shields available for IPP. FSIS employees can select the face covering or mask type and fit of their preference. FSIS has enough face coverings and masks to keep our inspection personnel supplied for the next few months. FSIS employees are required to wear face coverings and to wear them properly, and supervisors have been instructed to enforce this requirement.

Additionally, FSIS has secured ongoing shipments of hand sanitizer and has distributed it to field personnel.

To provide timely guidance and instruction, FSIS is hosting weekly calls with employees. Since March 12, the agency has hosted three calls for employees per week, attended by an average of 1,800 employees each week. These calls continue to stress to our employees the importance of following CDC guidance on social distancing, and hand hygiene and to take practical steps to implement this guidance as much as possible in establishments. These calls are also used to disseminate new guidance, policy updates and answer employee questions.

Q. COVID-19 is offering up uncharted waters and some very rough seas as we work our way through the pandemic. Understanding, of course, that no one knew what to do or when to do it, what have you learned and how has it changed your approach to managing the outbreak?


A. The COVID-19 pandemic poses unprecedented challenges to the world. Right now, we're continuing to focus on the safety of FSIS employees while meeting our regulatory requirements, so families have safe and wholesome food on the table. Once we have the pandemic behind us, it is likely that all federal, state, and local governments, as well as industry, will be looking at adjustments.

I also want to add how impressive it is to see the entire USDA family pull together in support of the mission. FSIS has supplemented our inspection personnel by increasing the number of hours part-time workers can work, utilizing other FSIS employees not normally involved with inspection procedures, and by calling on other USDA employees who have been trained in inspection from the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), and the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). All FSIS inspections duties have continued throughout the pandemic, ensuring the American food supply remains safe.


Q. One critically important question: Knowing the serious impact the virus has had on meat and poultry plants, is our food supply still as safe as it was before COVID-19?


A. Yes. We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices (i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly) when handling or preparing foods.

Coronaviruses are one of the easiest types of viruses to kill with the appropriate disinfectant product. All FSIS-regulated establishments are required to have Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (Sanitation SOP), which are written procedures that an establishment develops and implements to prevent direct contamination or adulteration of product. It is the establishment's responsibility to implement the procedures as written in the Sanitation SOPs. The establishment must maintain daily records sufficient to document the implementation and monitoring of the Sanitation SOPs and any corrective action taken. FSIS verifies that regulated establishments adhere to the procedures in place. The same sanitary procedures that establishments are already following to protect food safety will also help prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published a list of disinfectants that have qualified under EPA's emerging viral pathogen program for use against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Q. An understandably cautious quarantined public is looking at the prospect of a suddenly empty meat case, spooked by the recent Tyson New York Times ad that said our food supply system was broken. Would you offer some words of encouragement? Is it broken, and are we soon to see serious shortages of meat and poultry?

A. There are currently no nationwide shortages of food, although in some cases, the inventory of certain foods at your grocery store might be temporarily low before stores can restock. CDC and the Department of Labor (DOL) have issued guidance specific to the meat and poultry processing industry in order to facilitate ongoing operations and support the food supply, while also mitigating the risk of spreading COVID-19. Under the President's Executive Order, establishments are required to utilize the recommendations highlighted in the guidance document where practical, recognizing that how they are implemented may differ given the unique circumstances of establishments and processing facilities nationwide. 

Given the situation I will say that we are in a very good position to keep Americans fed. I can tell you that our inspectors are really a bright spot in this pandemic, and I could not be more proud of their work.

They are a master class in dedication and resilience. It is thanks to the individuals fulfilling their patriotic civil duty that Americans are still able to enjoy meat, poultry and egg products during the midst of a global pandemic. The misinformation and attacks you are reading in the news do not accurately reflect what our inspectors are experiencing and feeling. I think it is important to filter out the D.C.-based special interest campaigns and remember that these inspectors are public servants and that is exactly how they see their role. The public is calling on them and relying on them. They know that their time is now and despite these trying times they are keeping the food moving. Every week we are talking to thousands of inspectors on our town hall calls and through our feedback channels. Are inspectors nervous? Of course they are, we all are given the pandemic. However, across the board, their desire to serve, to keep their families, their communities, and the nation safely fed always propels them forward.

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