The give-and-take of inspection in meat processing
Federal and state inspection help keep the food supply safe, but it must give small processors the opportunity to survive without drowning in paperwork or burdensome regulations.
The goals of the meat processor and the inspector are basically the same. The processor wants to produce safe products. The inspector wants to keep the public from foodborne illnesses. Companies are required to develop procedures to ensure that food safety objectives are being met, and inspectors verify those claims through observation and reviewing documentation.
The relationship between the two groups at times can become strained. Government officials, whether at the federal or state level, can require additional documentation or changes to the facility. Small processors and meat markets don’t have the luxury of extra manpower for documentation or finances for unplanned capital expenditures. Each new regulation could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Case Study: Kansas
For nearly 100 years, Brant’s Market provided a touch of Old-World meatcraft to Lucas, Kan. Customers from hours away would drive to town for the ring bologna, bacon, jerky and other meat products it sold.
Unfortunately, 2018 marked the end of the business. It wasn’t that Douglas Brant, proprietor for the last 25 years, wanted to retire. It wasn’t that the company was struggling financially. The decision came when state inspectors presented Brant with a list of changes he needed to make to his operations — in effect, what he’d been doing for the last 18 years was wrong.
“It was our decision to close. We were not asked to close or anything like that,” explains Brant, 72. “We’ve been inspected on a yearly basis. But not once did they talk about having to keep this ungodly amount of paperwork. And that’s where our problem is.”
Brant ran virtually a one-man operation using Old World production techniques and recipes from Czechoslovakia that were handed down from his grandfather. He says that many of the changes that he was told to make were the result of regulations that were set in place in 2000. Somehow over the following 18 years, those regulations were not relayed to him. They came in the form of a 22-page document that was handed to him on a state inspection in early January.
For instance, Brant was told that he had to document the code numbers off the boxes of meat as they were delivered by the supplier. The inspector, however, couldn’t tell Brant where those code numbers were located on the box. She told him she would get back to him with that information once she found out for herself. By her own admission, inspection was not her field of expertise, Brant says.
With a larger operation, he says that someone could take on the task of recording all the information that is required by the state. With a limited workforce, the extra paperwork proved to be too much.
“I’m not blaming the inspector that I had; she was a wonderful lady, she tried to help, but she was having to do what she had to do,” he adds.
Case Study: Montana
Small processors in Montana have for years complained about onerous inspection of their small plants. They’re not necessarily breaking the rules; in many cases, they’ve been written up for violations of rules that don’t exist.
The problems started in 2005 when FSIS sent Dr. Jeffrey Legg to Montana to serve as the agency’s front line supervisor, says John Munsell, manager of Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE). Since Legg’s arrival, numerous complaints have been filed against him alleging mistreatment of Montana plants.
“FSIS has responded to some complaints by fully justifying Legg’s behavior, and in some cases, has failed to respond in any fashion, hoping the problem will quietly fade away,” Munsell says.
A two-part series of articles in The Montana Standard in late 2017 detailed some of the issues Montana processors have had. Companies, most notably Riley Meats of Butte, had been told to make tens of thousands of dollars in modifications to their operations that were not required.
“The news stories included examples of ‘Legg Regs,’ demands made by Legg which are not part of agency regulations: such as forbidding the use of wooden pallets, which are legal throughout the rest of America, but not at plants under Legg’s authority,” Munsell says.
Members of Montana’s congressional delegation have contacted FSIS and USDA officials, asking for a formal response to the ongoing complaints, Munsell says that the FSIS response was verbal only and failed to address the issues or their resolution.
This February, Montana legislators sent a request to the USDA that the Department open an outside investigation into the actions of federal inspectors. They also asked for an apology, according to the Great Falls Tribune.
“They should apologize to Riley Meats because we don’t do that in Montana,” said Rep. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula. “If you make a mistake you say ‘I’m sorry,’ and ‘How do I fix it?’”
An FSIS for all processors
In an interview earlier this year, Carmen Rottenberg, acting Deputy Under Secretary, Office of Food Safety, discussed FSIS and the issues of small processors. She said that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has tasked the agencies in the USDA to be the most efficient, effective and customer service-oriented agency in the federal government.
FSIS has added to its Enforcement Investigation and Analysis Officers (EIAO), pairing them with district offices. Those officers are to spend 25 percent of their job on outreach with very small plants. Companies can call the office and request the help of EIAOs when, for example, questions about HACCP plans or support documents arise. Rottenberg said it was a model the agency successfully used when introducing catfish processors to FSIS inspection.
The Agency will also do more work with compliance guides and are seeking input from small producers about their needs.
“We recognize that they may not have consultants that they’re working with,” Rottenberg adds. “These guides basically give them a step-by-step way to get through anything new that we are proposing, to tell them exactly what they need to have. The government is giving you a guide, and they are written for very small plants.”
In the last two years, FSIS officials have been making a significant and concerted effort to get out quarterly throughout the country and have small plant meetings, she explains.
“We’re turning some of the criticisms into tangible ways that the Agency can do a better job on outreach in order to educate the small and very small producers on what it is the Agency is expecting,” she says.