An audit of the inspection and enforcement activities of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) at swine slaughter plants identified multiple deficiencies, according to a recent report released in May. Among the report’s findings: FSIS’s enforcement actions do not deter repeat violations, inspectors do not always follow inspection protocols, and inspectors do not always take enforcement actions against humane handling violations at slaughter plants.
The USDA’s Office of Inspector General’s (OIG’s) report calls on the FSIS to take progressively stronger enforcement actions against plants with repeat violations, to standardize how and when violations lead to enforcement actions, and to better monitor inspectors’ performance.
The findings of the report have attracted considerable media scrutiny, including a June 17 New York Times editorial. Consumer advocate groups, too, have voiced concerns over the report’s conclusions.
“We consider the findings of the report troubling, and we are going to be watching closely to see what the agency’s response is,” says Sarah A. Klein, JD, MA, senior staff attorney with the Food Safety Program of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“When the OIG takes a look deep inside what’s happening at FSIS, it illuminates things that consumers and even advocates are unable to see,” Klein continues. “Regardless of what species is under consideration in a particular report, we are always looking at the broader implications of individual reports. If there is a breakdown in inspection protocols in swine, for example, there may also be similar problems in beef cattle, or in poultry.”
The report highlights the need to modernize meat inspection processes, Klein says, with the use of microbial testing as a backup for visual inspection, “so that even if an inspector failed in a visual inspection to spot fecal contamination for example, microbial testing could pick it up and help to ensure that those products are safe going to consumers.”
She also notes that humane treatment issues should not be seen as separate from safety issues. “We can’t separate out the two. If animals are being mistreated prior to slaughter, that can have a real food safety impact,” Klein says.
Appended to the OIG audit report is an FSIS response, which promises to take actions in response to each of the report’s 11 recommendations. Call to the FSIS press office requesting an update on these actions had not been returned at press time.