FSIS Denies Vacancy Rates Compromising Food Safety

WASHINGTON—The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on March 19 released figures showing an average meat plant inspection vacancy rate of 7.64% at the end of its last fiscal year, and an official denied vacancies are leading to more food recalls.

FSIS, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), released the figures in response to criticism that job vacancies are compromising food safety.

“The fact is, vacancies within the agency do not mean there are less inspectors on the job in our nation’s meat plants," wrote Aaron Lavalle, FSIS’ deputy assistant administrator for the office of public affairs and consumer education, in a blog. “FSIS is legally required to have a sufficient number of inspectors present in every single meat and poultry plant in the country. No plant in America is allowed to operate if it does not have the required number of safety inspectors in the plant at all times, and every plant currently operating in America has the necessary food inspection staff."

In September 2013, the end of the federal government's fiscal year, vacancy rates in FSIS' districts varied from 0.00% (Jackson District) to 12.68% (Chicago District).

Lavalle responded to a Feb. 20 New York Times article in which the paper reported the Raleigh District faced an 11% vacancy rate. Lavalle said the Raleigh District vacancy rate is currently 8.27%. He said the Times relied on faulty information based on a Freedom of Information Act Request that Food & Water Watch had not actually received at the time.  

Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch, a consumer rights group, previously told Food Product Design the Raleigh District Manager shared the 11% vacancy rate with Stanley Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals. Painter later confirmed he received the information from the district manager and his resource management analyst. In a blog March 20 responding to Lavalle, Corbo noted the information was conveyed during a January 2014 labor/management meeting.

Food & Water Watch has expressed concerns that FSIS' solicitation for temporary workers in anticipation that it will move to a new inspection system for chickens has not drawn strong interest. According to Food & Water Watch, FSIS projected eliminating 800 positions through attrition and began soliciting temporary workers in 2012 in anticipation that the inspection proposal would take effect. That has yet to happen.

"The temporary inspector hiring program has been less than successful as the agency has not been able to attract enough applicants to take the jobs," Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch, wrote in his blog. "So, with open permanent inspector positions remaining vacant and no temporary inspectors to fill them, inspector shortages have developed all across the country."

But Lavalle earlier sought to dispel concerns that vacancy rates would render food less safe. "There is no connection between recent recalls and FSIS vacancy rates, and any claims that these issues are linked are false," he wrote.

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