Jennifer Brdar’s dream job was to be a meat inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, watching out for unwary consumers and making sure the meat on their dinner tables was clean and disease-free.
After earning an associate’s degree in meat science, Brdar (pronounced Ber-dar) was hired in March as a temporary federal meat inspector at a big beef packing operation in Liberal, Kan.
She lasted barely a month, walking away in frustration.
The meat inspection agency wasn’t doing its job, Brdar explained, allowing problem meat that could sicken consumers to enter the marketplace.
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“It was like being kicked in the stomach,” she said tearfully. “Like watching every dream you had be shattered.”
The USDA declined to respond to Brdar’s complaints, but said it has been hard at work modernizing the inspection system, which they say is still effective — and getting even more effective.
But food safety advocates, members of Congress and even some inspectors contend the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which now employs 7,500 meat inspectors nationwide, is in disarray.
The problems grew out of one of the most far-reaching changes in U.S. meat inspection history, in which federal regulators this fall will allow poultry plant employees — instead of USDA inspectors — to help determine whether chicken is wholesome and safe to eat.
It’s a move critics see as a “privatization” of meat inspection that they fear could spread to beef and pork processing plants.
Meanwhile, years of preparations for the Oct. 24 changeover have helped generate what critics see as a severe shortage, at least for now, of federal inspectors in all kinds of slaughterhouses nationwide. The shortage is so widespread that inspectors and food safety advocates say some meat in supermarkets stamped as “USDA inspected” may never have been inspected at all.
The agency responded to only about half the written questions posed by the Hale Center for Journalism, but said, “The Food Safety and Inspection Service is modernizing all aspects of our operations to better prevent food-borne illness by focusing on preventing rather than reacting to contamination and other food safety hazards.”
Estimates of vacancy rates among inspectors have ranged from 4 percent to more than 8 percent, and it remains a point of contention between food safety groups and the agency, which insisted that it was not deregulating or privatizing the inspection system.
They said USDA inspectors will continue to inspect carcasses at poultry plants, as required by federal law.
But the agency acknowledges that the new chicken inspection rule would phase out up to 630 poultry inspector positions nationwide and replace them with employees of poultry plants.
To prepare for that, the agency has been instituting partial hiring freezes and making other staffing changes, one of which led the agency to hire temporary inspectors such as Brdar to work in poultry and red meat plants.
Those changes, along with existing staff shortages nationwide, mean some inspectors must drive from plant to plant, working up to 80 hours a week to keep up with workloads so heavy that federal auditors fear they could lead to mistakes.
The beef and chicken industries said the inspection system is still working effectively, but acknowledged that inspector shortages have required some plants to slow production.
When Brdar was hired as a $15.50-an-hour temporary inspector at the National Beef Packing plant in Liberal, she was told her job would last no more than two years.
The USDA did not want to hire permanent workers, Brdar was told, because they were saving those positions for former chicken plant inspectors who would need to transfer to new jobs.
Brdar and other inspectors around the country, many of whom asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from the agency, said the system is nearing a breaking point.
They contend the agency is having trouble attracting applicants, and that the temporary jobs pay little and offer inadequate training.
Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit food safety advocacy group, said the inspection system is in worse shape than he’s seen in 15 years.
Corbo has unearthed internal agency emails supporting his assertion.
An email in early July from Winston Felton, an Alabama-based agency supervisor, said, “We are experiencing severe staffing shortages and relief support is very difficult throughout our district.”
Felton declined to discuss the email, and referred questions to his supervisors. The USDA declined comment.
A 30-year poultry inspector in southern Missouri, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from his agency, said: “I’ve never seen it this bad … they won’t hire people to fill vacancies. …”
One inspector added, “Bottom line, we don’t regulate the meat companies; they regulate us.”
Long hours for many meat inspectors have continued, despite warnings from federal auditors that they “could impair food safety.”
As recently as last month, federal auditors identified those long hours as an important management challenge for the agency because it is “critical to public safety.”
Although inspectors moving out of poultry plants may take up some slack, critics fear the shortages are becoming chronic.
For more than a decade, the USDA — with encouragement from the poultry industry and fierce opposition from inspectors and consumer groups — has been pushing for big changes in the way poultry is inspected.
Top inspection officials in Washington said they’ve been using too much manpower visually inspecting every chicken carcass, looking for problems on the surface of the meat that they said usually pose only minimal food safety risks.
In January 2012, the USDA asked for public comment on a proposal that would change that practice by reassigning inspectors to more important tasks, such as more laboratory testing for food-borne pathogens that make people sick.
The Obama administration approved a revised rule in July of this year.
The USDA maintains its new revised poultry inspection system will reduce the amount of tainted chicken and is “a critical step forward in making chicken and turkey products safer for Americans to eat.”
They said the new rule also requires poultry companies to work harder to control salmonella and other harmful bacteria.
But the agency ended up with a rule that both food industry and food safety advocates find lacking, and which critics say could still cause havoc within inspection ranks.
There are some features of the revised rules that the chicken industry likes, such as making better use of fewer USDA inspectors.
Ashley Peterson, the National Chicken Council’s head of scientific and regulatory affairs, said consumers can take solace in the fact that the rule requires poultry plants to test for harmful bacteria. But she acknowledged that it also allows poultry companies to keep the results of those tests secret from consumers.
“The industry is doing all it can to protect public health. It’s in our best interest to do so,” Peterson noted.
But for food safety advocates such as Corbo and union leaders, the revised rule remains troublesome.
Testing for bacteria is laudable, they acknowledged, but until the USDA establishes a zero tolerance for salmonella — as it has done for a dangerous bacteria found in beef — it still has relatively limited power to control those bacteria.
Meat inspection officials counter that they still have the power to suspend operations at a plant or take other action if test results show an increase in dangerous pathogens overall.
Agency officials also noted that chicken plant employees who replace USDA inspectors will still be overseen by the remaining federal inspectors.
But Stan Painter, a top official with the union that represents federal meat inspectors, characterized that as window dressing. “No USDA inspector will be looking at what company people do,” he predicted.
Fewer inspectors in poultry slaughter facilities “is a recipe for more food-borne illness and more people in the hospital,” said U.S. Rep. Rosa Delauro, a Connecticut Democrat, and Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat and the only microbiologist in Congress.
Indeed, Dayna Coonce, a 30-year USDA meat inspector in Missouri, is so concerned about the new rule she said: “I’m telling my friends to quit eating chicken after it goes into effect.”
Mike McGraw was an investigative reporter for The Kansas City Star for more than 30 years until he retired in April. He now freelances for Kansas City Public Television's Hale Center for Journalism.