USDA pilot program fails to stop contaminated meat

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How’s that for an attention getting headline?  I’m certain that’s what the Washington Post was going for when they published this article in their on-line Politics page this morning.  You can read the whole, fairly inaccurate and definitely sensational, article here.  WAPO Article

It took FSIS approximately 30 minutes before they found the article and offered their own Twitter defense saying that the article was not true, there was no proposed upcoming legislation change and on and on.  Nothing to see here: Please move along.

Reality is that there is some truth from both sides – which is all too often the case.  If only we lived in the land of Good and Evil.  USDA-FSIS has been attempting to significantly reduce their workforce for years.  Who could blame them?  Their workforce is expensive and difficult to manage and, at best, a liability – as is pretty much anyone’s workforce if allowed to run unfettered for decades.  Any attempts to reign in the current inspection force results quickly in two things:

1.  Public outcry that you don’t care about the safety of the food supply

2.  Defense by the inspector’s union without regard to the legitimacy of the request or accusation

A quick review of the comments on the article reveal just what I feared.  “I never thought I’d see a return to the Sinclair novel I read as a child”; “The company can’t possibly be responsible for policing themselves – pressure, firing employees, etc, etc”.  185 comments strong with the majority explaining how this move would be the end of food as we know it.  People dying in the streets.  Food poisoning run rampant.  Apparently these companies don’t have lick one of business sense to understand that it is THEIR name associated with the product and, while the inspectors serve a very important function, they are not the thin red line between safe food and utter mayhem.

I’ve always struggled with inspectors who take this tact.  A lot, perhaps most but not overwhelmingly so, come to work each day and do their best to ensure the product produced under their watch meets the regulatory requirements they are tasked to uphold.  These inspectors are rapidly promoted from line inspection and spend their days overseeing further processing establishments.  This is where their talents are best suited.  I’ve worked with a lot of these people.  They are passionate about their jobs and, while I didn’t always agree with their interpretation of the situation, I did respect where they were coming from.

I’ve lost hope of seeing any additional significant inspection changes in my career (and I’ve got quite a bit of time to go before I hang up my hat).  I was one of the ones who was excited about the introduction of HIMP – 12 YEARS AGO.  It is still considered a pilot project and only just now may it be expanded a bit further.  Hence the noise about increasing inspection speeds to unsafe rates.  With safety and debilitating injuries now getting center stage it will be another decade plus before the next step can be made.  This is truly a shame as, ultimately, no one wins.

We all, industry, government and consumer advocacy groups, want a safe, dependable and cost effective food supply.  Most companies don’t cut corners, a lot of inspectors want what’s best for all, some consumer advocacy groups care about industry as well as their fiefdom.  How successful could we be if, just for once, we set aside the noise and did what was right for the consumer…….