Agency inspectors failed to visit plants, supervisors unaware
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The USDA must ensure inspectors don't cut corners in their examinations of meat-processing plants, according to an internal agency audit.
"Inspectors are able to misreport the satisfactory completion of inspection procedures" in a database "without detection by supervisors and managers," according to the report from the agency's Office of the Inspector General.
The audit pertained to food safety inspections at meat-processing plants, not slaughterhouses, which are constantly overseen by an inspector.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service "lacked adequate oversight to discourage the misreporting" and depended on the facilities themselves to alert the agency to such problems, the audit said.
Inspectors were not required to submit specific information to verify they had actually performed certain procedures and their supervisors did not make unannounced visits to confirm these tasks were completed, the audit said.
When asked by auditors about these shortcomings, top FSIS officials said they thought such misreporting was infrequent but "had no evidence to support their conclusion that it happened rarely and was only a minor problem," the report said.
Agency officials also said facilities will report inspectors who aren't doing their jobs because they fear losing the ability to operate if uninspected meat were sold to the public, the report said.
The audit disagreed with this conclusion, calling it a "weak control" since facilities with poor sanitation standards don't have much incentive to receive the most accurate inspections.
Though supervisors do conduct two reviews a year to check how inspectors are fulfilling their duties, these visits are announced ahead of time and wouldn't effectively uncover deficiencies, the audit said.
Auditors became aware of the problem based on conversations with supervisors and inspectors.
For example, a supervisor told the auditors that an inspector reported completing tasks at a facility that he actually rarely inspected, the report said. The problem came to light when the facility changed its operating schedule but the inspector continued to issue reports on the same days.
Several inspectors interviewed by the auditors said that when they didn't have time to complete all the procedures, "supervisors occasionally told them to record the performance of scheduled tasks" in the information system "even though the tasks weren't actually performed by the inspector."
In a response letter to the audit, FSIS administrator Alfred Almanza said supervisors will be directed to watch for trends that information is improperly or "fallaciously" being entered by inspectors and investigate accordingly.
Supervisors will also be encouraged to make unannounced visits to inspected facilities, the letter said. The agency also plans to improve tracking and follow-up of missed procedures.