The recent audit of the Food Safety Inspection Service has a familiar ring to it.
In 2008, after the Hallmark Meat Packing Plant debacle in Chino, Calif., when mistreatment of a downer cow was recorded on video, auditors found that FSIS was understaffed to the point of being ineffective.
Slaughterhouse employees were asked to report violations when inspectors weren't available, and supervision was woefully inadequate. The supervisor who oversaw the Hallmark FSIS inspectors was also responsible for inspectors at 60 facilities. How could anyone adequately supervise five dozen facilities?
Four years later, a new audit -- this time of meat-processing plant inspectors -- turns up many of the same problems, and some new ones.
One such problem is inspectors who not only falsified their reports, but did it at the request of their supervisors. One even managed to "inspect" a meat processing facility when it wasn't operating, according to his report.
The problems are manifold, the audit by the USDA Office of Inspector General showed.
Under FSIS policy every shift at a meat processing plant must be inspected. The problems arise when 3,399 inspectors shuttle between 6,178 meat processing plants spread across the nation. Many of the plants run two or three shifts a day. Weather, traffic, illnesses and vacancies add to the problems. On average the agency reported a 6 percent vacancy rate among inspectors.
Even worse was a computerized reporting system that didn't allow inspectors to report why some tasks weren't carried out, so supervisors had no clue to what was going on.
Let's consider these problems.
There's no excuse for the job vacancies. During a period of high unemployment it's difficult to believe that 220 good-paying federal jobs would be vacant, yet that was the reason FSIS managers gave.
There's no excuse for inspectors to skip their duties. An inspector needs to do the job, period.
However, some inspectors told auditors that their supervisors told them to falsify the reports. The inspectors "stated that supervisors occasionally told them to record the performance of scheduled tasks as completed ... even though the tasks were not actually performed by the inspector," according to the audit.
In short, instead of protecting the public safety and setting up a system that meets that requirement, the FSIS is understaffed and undersupervised to the point that the home office in fact doesn't know which inspections are being performed at which plants.
The agency cites a lack of money and not enough inspectors to do the job.
Here's an idea. Instead of spending money promoting arugula to schoolchildren or promoting wood as the new "biofuel" or any of a thousand other diversions, why doesn't USDA hire an adequate number of food safety inspectors and supervisors?
It's more than a little disconcerting to see the most important roles of USDA minimized while the warm-and-fuzzy public relations silliness gets most of the attention from the top brass.
USDA's priorities are out of whack, and it puts the public -- and the food industry -- at risk.