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FSIS faced with staffing woes before shutdown

USDA photo by Preston Keres Secretary Perdue touring pork slaughterhouse facility
A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Inspector shows Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue around the processing floor of the Triumph Foods pork processing facility April 28, 2017. The facility houses 2,800 employees in St. Joseph, Mo.
FOIA requests find that meat plants issuing food recalls did not have adequate FSIS personnel on inspection.

Hundreds of meat plants, including two involved in recent recalls announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS), had inadequate inspection staffing in 2018 to complete required inspection tasks, according to new data Food & Water Watch obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

On Jan. 17, FSIS announced the recall of 68,244 lb. of chicken nuggets produced on Oct. 25, 2018, by the Perdue Foods plant located in Perry, Ga., because consumers reported that there were pieces of wood in the product.

Based on the documents secured by Food & Water Watch, FSIS was not properly staffing that plant with adequate inspection personnel to complete routine inspection tasks. Inspectors assigned to that plant cited 81 times that they were assigned other duties as the reason behind being unable to complete their assigned tasks. Also included in their reasons for not being able to complete their tasks were: administrative duties (listed two times), doubled-covered assignments (11 times), higher-priority task taking precedent (two times), not enough time to complete the task (seven times), short staffing (two times), triple-covered assignments (four times) and working the slaughter line (five times).

Perdue Foods spokeswoman Andrea Staub, said regarding the recall time period, "Based on our records, our further processed plant in Perry Georgia is adequately staffed.  All of the USDA inspector slots at this plant were filled during the time period when the recalled product was produced." 

On Jan. 18, 2019, FSIS announced the recall of 48,371 lb. of raw ground pork patties produced by Johnsonville LLC located in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., because consumers reported finding pieces of rubber in the product. The products were packaged on Sept. 27, Oct. 17 and Oct. 18, 2018.

The inspectors assigned to this Johnsonville facility cited not enough time to complete the task 24 times, while a higher-priority task took precedent 15 times and doubled-covered assignments 16 times. Short staffing was also identified as a reason 11 times. Having too many plants to physically go to each plant was cited twice, and triple-covered assignments were cited three times.

Food & Water Watch is calling for an investigation into the management of the inspection staffing at FSIS, according to Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food program. “When FSIS inspectors cannot fully complete their inspection tasks, it means that critical checks are delayed or missed, such as taking samples for pathogen testing or thoroughly evaluating production processes,” he said in a statement.

Corbo added that these “drive-by” inspections are not enough to ensure the safety of products put into commerce. “That these plants were permitted to use the USDA inspection legend ‘inspected and passed’ on their product packaging when there was inadequate inspection is tantamount to fraud,” he said.

Food & Water Watch said it has filed an annual FOIA request with FSIS to obtain the monthly vacancy rates for field inspection personnel since 2005. The agency has responded to that request every year except for fiscal 2018, for which it has thus far failed to produce the data.

TAGS: Policy
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