The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which operates under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and employs more than 10,000 people, is tasked with ensuring the safety and proper labeling of U.S. meat, poultry and eggs.
FSIS inspectors are present at over 6,200 U.S. slaughter, food processing and import facilities to check for diseased animals, compliance with the Humane Slaughter Act, bacterial contamination and the presence of antibiotic, pesticide and other residues. FSIS investigators monitor sales and distribution of finished products to prevent disease outbreaks and to help initiate recalls of contaminated products when they occur.
The agency’s No. 1 job is to protect consumers. Yet according to a compliance operations official who worked at FSIS for many years, internal corruption, mismanagement, low morale and undisguised conflicts-of-interest within the agency often prevent FSIS inspectors and investigators from doing their jobs. It’s a public health crisis “just waiting to happen,” the official told us, on condition of anonymity.
Moreover, large meat producers like Cargill, Tyson, Smithfield, Swift (JBS) and Sanderson Farms are often given a "pass" thanks to their high-paid lobbyists:
"The same misbranding or adulteration of product that would force an immediate recall from a small, 'Ma and Pa' company is overlooked with big meat companies," says the official.
Inspectors in the line of fire
There are two kinds of inspector positions at FSIS––those who work the kill line in slaughter facilities, and consumer safety inspectors who check companies for compliance with their hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) plans. HACCP plans seek to prevent biological, chemical and physical hazards in food processing.
In the dysfunctional FSIS systems, said the official, slaughter line inspectors might have the toughest job of all––there are serious obstacles that prevent them from doing their jobs.
For example, FSIS inspectors can push a button and stop the slaughter line if they suspect a violation is occurring—but "they better be damn right or their head is going to be on the stick," the official said. Stopping the line was estimated to cost a plant $5,000 a minute several years ago and costs have only risen. Inspectors are further deterred from taking action because they "may not be supported by their frontline supervisor or by the district office/management team."
Under the Humane Slaughter Act, cattle and hogs first must be "stunned" with a blow to the head or an electric shock so they won’t feel the pain of slaughter. Yet the law is frequently broken, say insiders.
"In plants all over the United States, this happens on a daily basis," said Lester Friedlander, a veterinarian and formerly chief government inspector at a Pennsylvania hamburger plant. "I've seen it happen. And I've talked to other veterinarians. They feel it's out of control."
The late Tim Walker complained about similar violations to a USDA veterinarian in the Florida slaughter plant where he was employed, as well as to all his supervisors. But no action was taken. Employees were afraid to speak out for fear they might lose their jobs.
Going directly to FSIS about violations feels to FSIS employees like "they are tattling on themselves," according to our insider source, who said that some inspectors have even received death threats. When inspectors have been stationed at a particular plant for a while, they also may identify as that plant's employee. In at least one major violation case, which became a scandal, an onsite inspector was having affair with an employee greatly complicating compliance. Fewer than 10 percent of inspector issues get to FSIS, our source told us, adding: "In fact inspectors are not even allowed to go directly to Compliance but rather must go through the chain of command at their plant."
Nor are FSIS employees always backed up by their supervisors when they do seek to cite violations. Dr. Dean Wyatt, an FSIS supervisory public health veterinarian stationed at Vermont-area slaughterhouses testified at Congressional hearings that he was specifically instructed by his supervisors not to file violation reports–not to do his job–and that official reports were sanitized and deleted. Plant managers, sensing the lack of support, openly defied inspectors, and workers followed suit. In his testimony, Wyatt said:
"I was always shot down, so to speak, by my supervisors. I would walk by a plant foreman; they would laugh at me. I would go up to trim—I would give a rail inspector his break. Plant foreman would come up and tell my trimmer: ‘This guy doesn’t know anything. Don’t trim what he tells you. Just trim what you see.’ I mean, that is an example of the most egregious action a supervisor can take, because when you don’t support your inspectors you are just as guilty of breaking the law as the establishment, in my view."
Cow heads exhibiting evidence of eye cancer switched to fool inspectors
Death threats, reluctance to stop the line and diminished inspector authority can allow unsafe food to be passed along to the public, according to the FSIS official who spoke to us. For instance, federal law prohibits dead and dying animals from being processed for meat for human consumption. Yet non-ambulatory animals (sometimes called "downers") are "often" simply brought through a back door and still allowed into the food supply, the official said.
Such subterfuge led to one of FSIS's most impressive actions, citing in instance where “We got the message that rendering was doing a lot of pickups at a particular location and investigated.” Rendering plants process animal by-products to make tallow, grease and high-protein meat and bone meal. FSIS's investigation led to the 2014 recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef products processed by Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma, California, because Rancho Feeding had processed sick animals, including some with eye cancer.
The recall included Walmart Fatburgers, Kroger Ground Beef Mini Sliders and several Nestle products, and encompassed California, Florida, Illinois and Texas. It included both familiar beef cuts and offal, which refers to the head, intestines, liver, tongue, feet, hearts, bones and trim derived from cattle.
While local beef ranchers had been taking their cattle to Rancho for slaughter, Rancho also often purchased spent dairy cows to sell as meat, many of which had eye cancer and other diseases. For more than a year, Rancho had operated an elaborate scheme to swap uninspected cows infected with cancerous eyes with cattle that had already passed ante mortem inspection. According to Food Safety News, government attorneys accused Rancho co-owner Jesse J. Amaral Jr.,
"of ordering Rancho employees to process cattle that were condemned by the USDA veterinarian. At his instruction, [co-owner Felix] Cabrera allegedly had workers cut the 'USDA Condemned' stamps out of the cattle carcasses so they could be processed for sale and distribution. At about the same time, court documents state that Amaral gave the foreman, Cabrera, and the yardman,[Eugene] Corda, directions on how to circumvent inspection procedures for cows with cancerous eyes. Both Amaral and [Robert] Singleton told their employees to swap out uninspected cows with cancerous eyes with cattle that had already passed ante mortem inspection, according to the documents"
According to the federal indictment:
"Cabrera, or another kill floor employee at his instruction, placed heads from apparently healthy cows, which had been previously reserved, next to the cancer eye cow carcasses. The switch and slaughter of uninspected cancer eye cows occurred during the inspectors' lunch breaks, at a time during which plant operations were supposed to cease."
When the inspectors "returned from lunch for post mortem inspections, they were unaware that the carcasses they were inspecting belonged to cancerous cows that had escaped ante mortem inspection."
In defending Rancho co-owner Amaral, his attorney blamed "significant errors" by FSIS inspection staff who were supposed to watch as condemned animals were destroyed "before their eyes."
For government attorneys to take on a food case it must be airtight, as those attorneys are busy with arson and murder cases, the FSIS official told us. The Rancho Feeding case fit that criteria. In addition to the "yuck" factor of eating meat from beheaded cows with eye cancer, Rancho's plot presented serious and deadly risks, the official said. The Rancho meat, sneaked past inspectors, could well have contained specified risk materials (SRMs) which could transmit BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) commonly known as Mad Cow Disease.
This was not the first time the safety of Rancho’s operations was called into question. In late 2013, two cows slaughtered there had penicillin levels in their kidneys at 30 and 68 times the federal limits.
In 2014, Amaral was sentenced to one year in federal prison and a year of supervised release.
Impediments to recalls
The Rancho investigation, recall and legal proceedings that resulted in guilty pleas, convictions and jail time shows how the system is supposed to work.
But all too often, food lobbyists and lawyers are able to override recalls, according to the FSIS official who told us:
"The recall committee would be on the phone with perhaps 25 people including the food producer, lawyers, policy, science and public affairs personnel and investigators. Then there would be a sidebar––in which lawyers talk without FSIS staff being able to hear and the entire tone and then topic would have changed after the sidebar was finished."
When a food safety violation is identified, FSIS typically tries to convince the food producer to do a voluntary recall. FSIS has the authority to seize products on its own. But neither party wants the red tape nightmare and heightened publicity for fear of casting the food producer, and even the U.S. supply, in a bad light. Still, it was not uncommon, according to our source, when FSIS personnel would say "if you don't voluntarily recall, things could get rough for you," that the food producer's lawyer would respond with: "Show me the science. How do you know the problem is my guy's canning and not someone else's? You don't have enough evidence."
Not unlike other government-regulated industries, a revolving door and “old boys’ network” characterizes the relationship between the USDA and FSIS, and the captains of the meat industry, our source told us. Lobbyists, like those at the influential North American Meat Institute, are often former government workers or regulators who know how the game is played.
For example, in 2017, former FSIS deputy undersecretary Alfred Almanza left the agency to join meat giant JBS global which describes itself as "a leading processor of beef and pork in the U.S. and majority shareholder of Pilgrim's Pride Corporation, the second largest poultry company in the U.S."
The old boys' network is enhanced by the fact that FSIS is housed within the USDA headquarters, instead of in separate, independent offices which would allow inspectors greater latitude.
While major food producers can often obviate recalls, smaller operations can't the official told us:
"What is very disturbing is the unfair application of FSIS regulations such as recalls. The little guy gets beat to death while a Cargill, Tyson or JBS will get a walk for the same violation.”
More threats to public health
In addition to FSIS's many inspectors, investigators regularly visit food wholesalers, retailers and processors to regulate packaged and ready-to-sell items. Yet again, their work can be impeded. "If something does not look right to our inspectors, we ask to see records but they can be in a foreign language," the official said.
Seafood can be especially tricky. In a 2011 USDA report assessing U.S. Food & Drug Administration third-party certification of Southeast Asian shrimp production, for example, there were found to be major language barriers. Six out of eight auditors didn’t even know what drugs and chemicals were approved in U.S. exports. When a country is blocked from shipping shrimp it often "transships" through a country that is believed to be safe, say seafood safety experts.
As with slaughterhouses, food processors and vendors are also known to deliberately attempt scams. According to the FSIS official:
"My investigators found that a supplier of meat to prisons was misbranding and greatly inflating the amount of meat in their product which was actually only 80/20 ground beef. These are felonies for which people could potentially go to jail."
When serious food safety risks are detected, FSIS quickly assesses the national marketplace and traces the risks back to their source. If patients have been hospitalized, FSIS acquires samples and will interview the patients along with local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the face of a contamination outbreak, FSIS investigators will quickly visit wholesalers, retailers and processers with questions like "Where else did you ship product?" "Did you separate lots?" and "Did you wash and clean machinery on the line?"
But in addition to concerns about bacterial content, unlabeled ingredients/allergens, foreign substances/adulteration, misbranding and elaborate deception schemes as seen with Rancho Feeding, something else haunts the compliance operations official–– agroterrorism:
"There is so much the general public doesn't understand about food in general and meat in particular, and security itself at a meat processing is extremely loose. It does not even have to be international terrorism––it could be local. Employees could deliberately introduce a razor into product or unintentionally contaminate product with dangerous, infectious diseases."
In recent years, the meat industry has rolled out many "post hoc" treatments to curtail meat pathogens—from the ammonia puffs used to make "pink slime," to irradiation, chlorine, carbon monoxide and of course antibiotic sprays. Yet, "it is a bad way to do business," the official told us, because different meats and different pathogens require different treatments.
Clearly there’s a lot wrong at FSIS that needs to be fixed. Similar corruption and product adulteration was seen with early alcohol production, our source told us. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was eventually able to rid the agency of industry lobbyists and influence.
FSIS needs to do the same.
Meanwhile, working at FSIS to protect the food supply can be a frustrating job for those who want to make a difference "against all odds" said the FSIS official.
This article was written for the Organic Consumers Association by contributing writer Martha Rosenberg. To keep up with OCA news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.