USDA Inspectors Claim Vacancies Put Consumers at Risk

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is so shorthanded that the <"">safety of the US food supply is at risk.  Every single animal sent to slaughter must pass inspection; however, USDA inspectors are so short-staffed that they must look down at hundreds of animals at once from catwalks hoping to catch signs such as droopy ears, stumbling gait, and facial paralysis.  There is such a shortage of USDA inspectors that slaughterhouse workers often know when surprise visits occur and ensure they behave accordingly.  All this according to former and current USDA inspectors following the biggest beef recall in history—143 million pounds from California meatpacker Hallmark/Westland.  Hallmark/Westland is accused of sending lame “downer” cows to slaughter and was caught doing so in a US Humane Society videotaped investigation.

USDA inspectors are concerned staff shortages are allowing sick cows into the nation’s food supply, endangering the public.  According to USDA figures, inspector ranks nationwide had vacancy rates of 10 percent or more in 2006-07.  “They’re not covering all their bases.  There’s a possibility that something could go through because you don’t have the manpower to check everything,” said Lester Friedlander, former USDA veterinary inspector.  Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), acknowledged the department has been struggling to fill vacancies but denied risk to the food supply.  “Every single animal must past ante-mortem inspection before it’s presented for slaughter, so only healthy animals are going to pass,” she said. “We do have continuous inspection at slaughter facilities.”  Current and former inspectors and other industry critics argue that staff shortages are resulting in the mistreatment of animals going to slaughter which may have contributed to the recent recall.

The USDA issued the recall after the Humane Society released undercover video showing slaughterhouse workers at Westland/Hallmark kicking and shoving sick and crippled cows and forcing them to stand with electric prods, forklifts, and water hoses.  Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society’s president and chief executive, said the video was filmed last fall when USDA inspectors were not present.  “The inspection system obviously has enormous gaps if these routine abuses could happen,” he said. “The inspector would show up and if there were downed animals; the workers would try to get them up before the inspectors got there.”  Generally, downer cows are banned from the food supply under federal regulations as they carry a higher risk of mad cow disease; because sickly animals typically wallow in feces and have weakened immune systems, they tend to carry E. coli and salmonella, too.

Critics say shortages are compounded by a change in USDA regulations giving slaughterhouses more responsibility for devising their own safety checklists and reporting downer cows to the USDA when inspectors are not present.  The policy places slaughterhouses on an honor system that can lead to abuses in a cost-conscious industry, said Stan Painter, chairman for the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, which represents 6,000 inspectors nationwide adding, “If you throw a three-pound chicken away, so what? But if you throw a cow away that’s 300 pounds of meat and you can’t get any money out of it, that’s a big issue.”

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