Food-safety assurance in question

Meat inspectors say they're overworked and understaffed

October 14, 2007|By Stephen J. Hedges | Stephen J. Hedges,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- As alarm bells sounded for the second-largest hamburger recall in history, about 250 of the nation's top food-safety officials were in Miami setting the "course for the next 100 years of food safety."

That so many U.S. Department of Agriculture field supervisors were in Florida while New Jersey-based Topps Meat Co. was scrambling to recall 21.7 million pounds of hamburger has rankled some USDA inspectors and food safety advocates.

Several USDA inspectors said in interviews that their workloads are doubling or tripling as they take on the duties of inspectors who have left the department, not to be replaced.

"We've been short the whole time I've been in," said one veteran inspector who asked not to be named. "We don't have enough inspectors, but we have too much management. The inspectors are short all the time and getting spread thinner and thinner."

The Topps crisis began last month, when three consumers in New York and Florida fell ill from E. coli poisoning. Soon after that, at least 32 people were reported sick. The Topps recall, though, began 18 days after the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service confirmed the presence of E. coli in a Topps hamburger.

The undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, Richard Raymond, later said, "We can do better."

Food Safety and Inspection Service spokeswoman Amand Eamich, in a written response to questions from the Chicago Tribune, said that the USDA's "Miami meeting had no impact on either the timing or decision-making associated with the Topps recall."

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, which regulates meat, poultry and egg production, said it had 7,200 inspectors in 1992 and 7,450 now.

"FSIS ended [fiscal year 2007] with the highest number of in-plant employees since 2003," Eamich stated. During the year, the FSIS was approved "for more in-plant inspectors than at any time since 2003. The agency has numerous hiring initiatives targeted at recruiting inspectors for these vacancies."

Stan Painter, an inspector and union representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the inspectors, said the actual number of inspectors is closer to 6,500. The difference, he said, is a matter of unfilled vacancies that the FSIS permanently carries.

"There are about 1,000 vacancies," Painter said. "It's steadily gotten worse."

USDA inspectors visit about 6,000 food-production facilities, but some are so large that they require several inspectors. From April to June of this year, inspectors examined 34 million livestock carcasses and condemned 54,546 of them, according to FSIS records. For poultry, the numbers jump to an 2.3 billion carcasses inspected and 11 million condemned animals.

The legal requirements for inspections, combined with a reduced force, mean that the inspection goals have not been met for years, inspectors said. They say the workload is unrealistic, reducing their duties to cursory checks of company records, not the physical examination of meat, poultry and eggs.

In the wake of the Topps case, USDA officials are devising a food safety checklist that each of the nation's estimated 1,500 meatpacking plants must complete. Industry representatives point out that incidents of E. coli had declined for several years before increasing this year.

E. coli has actually "declined something in the order of 72 percent over the last five years," said Jim Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation. "It's still at a very low rate, statistically."

Stephen J. Hedges writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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