State and federal inspectors have difficult jobs – I doubt there are many in the processing industry who would argue that. They monitor the actions that take place at a processing plant (or plants) and ensure that every operation adheres to a HACCP plan. Inspectors spot problems with operations, violations of food safety practices and, when necessary, write up companies for serious infractions.
What happens, though, when an inspector stops identifying problems and becomes a problem? Nobody expects a processor and an inspector to be best pals, but what if they can’t maintain even a professional relationship? The processor has to allow an inspector into their facility, give them access to the plant floor and all their records, and even provide office space for them. Does the processor have any rights in the relationship?
That was a question that faced Boone’s Butcher Shop, located in Bardstown, Ky. The company produces a number of fresh cuts of meat and other further-processed products, and it also slaughters beef and hogs.
“’Kentucky Proud’ is a big thing in the state of Kentucky. A lot of people buy locally from their farmers, so we’re pretty involved in that,” said Allison Boone Porteus, part of the third generation of family ownership.
The nearly 75-year-old company has had numerous inspectors in its plant over the years. The company has never had a serious problem with any of them, until this year. A long-time inspector retired in October of 2019, and a series of relief inspectors went through the plant before a new, permanent inspector was installed at the end of January 2020. Soon after, Porteus says, the inspector started showing odd or inappropriate behavior.
“He was using a flashlight on our kill floor for our zero-tolerance trim inspection. We have an 8-foot LED light right over our trim area,” she explains. “Never had we seen that.”
The inspector began making offhand comments to the employees rather than Boone’s management. He told Porteus about “extreme high-priority” corrections that needed to be made – things like documentation or small sanitation issues. Porteus feels like he was being aggressive with her, more so than he did with her father or brother.
“I’m really the only female who’s on the processing side,” she says. “I do the HACCP stuff. He would always come at me and say, ‘I’m writing you up!’ I’d try to ask questions and push back a little, and he’d be very forceful with me.
“My dad would have a conversation with him, and he’d back off. He’d come at me extremely aggressively, and then he’d back down with my dad. That really irritated my dad. That was the thing that he just couldn’t tolerate anymore,” she adds.
The breaking point came when the inspector came to them with a list of 60 priority items for them to fix, during the height of the COVID panic buying when Boone’s was slammed with customers. They were small things, like a rusty bolt that needed to be replaced on a track. However, he wouldn’t give the family a copy of the list.
“I think we have a good plant,” Porteus says. “We had a fire, so our plant was rebuilt in 2005. There’s wear and tear, but we have a nice plant and I think most people would agree with that.”
The Boone’s management had not had to deal with a rogue inspector before, so they did not know the procedures of dealing with it. Porteus points out that, due to their location, any permanent inspector essentially works out of the business.
“We’ve never even appealed an NR before this business, never filed a complaint,” she says. “We didn’t understand the process around this, or how inappropriate these things were. We just decided we were going to live with this and not destroy the relationship by tattling to a supervisor.”
Things unfortunately reached a breaking point when Porteus’ father and the inspector got into an argument over whether pre-operational inspection had been properly documented on a piece of equipment, and the inspector filed a complaint. The company met with the frontline supervisor about that, but by the time the mandatory “cooling-off period” – where the two men didn’t interact – was through, Boone’s had decided that the relationship was beyond repair, and they filed a formal complaint against the inspector.
Porteus said that the company’s petition to FSIS was denied, and that they appealed the denials until a Washington official agreed to remove the inspector pending a review of the case. Due to the timing of the appeals process, Boone’s declined inspection on one day rather than have the inspector in the plant.
Boone’s has been working with AAMP and outside consultants to help get them through this turmoil, and local politicians have lent their support as well. As it currently stands, the inspector has not returned to the plant, Porteus says. Nothing official has come from FSIS yet, but it sounds as if Boone’s won’t have to take the most extreme measure of stopping federal inspection entirely. It was a step they were willing to take, though.
“We work with somewhere around 50 local farms. We private label their fresh meat for them for sale at farmers markets, or some of them have a little store on their property. We normally slaughter somewhere around 45 animals a week that are meant to be processed under USDA or for our retail store,” she says. Considering that the state of Kentucky’s slaughter capacity is already stretched to the limit already, those farmers would have nowhere to turn if Boone’s restricted its slaughter operations to custom exempt.
“It is our mental and physical well-being at stake,” Porteus explains. “Unless you’ve been through it, you cannot understand the emotional turmoil that comes along with not wanting to be inside your own plant, not being able to sleep, and being scared that a person is going to sabotage your business. It is an awful feeling, and we know we cannot live like this.”
She is quick to add that she doesn’t believe this is an agency-wide problem within FSIS. The company has had multiple inspectors in its history, and the relationships have been cordial and professional. She hopes that her company’s experience can help to let other plants know that there are options for them if something similar does happen.
“I hope smaller plants don’t fall into the same trap we fell into where they don’t know what their rights are and they don’t speak up soon enough, and it snowballs into this mess,” she adds.