Documents Show Hundreds of Meat Plants – Including Two Involved in Recent Recalls – Had Inadequate USDA Staffing to Complete Inspections
WASHINGTON – New data obtained by Food & Water Watch under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveals that hundreds of meat plants, including two involved in recent recalls announced by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), had inadequate inspection staffing in 2018 to complete required inspection tasks. The vast majority of the 6,400 plants listed in the FSIS directory reported non-performed inspection tasks over the same period.
“Food inspections are suffering under the government shutdown. But even before the shutdown, we’ve found that facilities had significant staffing problems and incomplete inspections that may have directly led to contaminated meat being released into the food supply,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.
On January 17, FSIS announced the recall of 68,244 pounds of chicken nuggets produced on October 25, 2018 by the Perdue Foods plant located in Perry, Ga. (establishment number 33944) because consumers reported 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 the following reasons why they could not complete their inspection tasks during FY 2018:
- Administrative duties (listed 2 times)
- Assigned other duties (listed 81 times)
- Double covered assignments (listed 11 times)
- Higher priority task took precedent (listed 2 times)
- Not enough time to complete the task (listed 7 times)
- Short staffing (listed 2 times)
- Triple covered assignments (listed 4 times)
- Working the slaughter line (listed 5 times)
On January 18, 2019, FSIS announced the recall of 48,371 pounds of raw ground pork patties produced by Johnsonville, LLC located in Sheboygan Falls, WI (establishment number 34225) because consumers reported finding pieces of rubber in the product. The products were packaged on September 27, October 17, and October 18, 2018.
The inspection data for this particular plant reveals that inspectors could not complete their tasks for the following reasons:
- Double covered assignments (listed 16 times)
- Higher priority task took precedent (listed 15 times)
- Not enough time to complete the task (listed 24 times)
- Short staffing (listed 11 times)
- Too many plants to physically go to each plant (listed 2 times)
- Triple covered assignments (listed 3 times)
“There needs to be an investigation into the management of the inspection staffing at FSIS,” said Tony Corbo, Senior Lobbyist for the food program at Food & Water Watch. “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.
“‘Drive-by’ inspections are not enough to ensure the safety of products put into commerce,” continued Corbo. “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.”
Food & Water Watch has filed an annual Freedom of Information Act request with FSIS for the monthly vacancy rates for field inspection personnel since 2005. The agency has responded every year to that request except for fiscal year 2018, for which it has thus far failed to produce the data.