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Inspectors say workload puts food safety at risk
Staffing shortage is stretching workers thin, especially in the Midwest, investigation finds


At eight months pregnant, government food inspector Rosalie Arriaga was scheduled in March 2018 to handle twice her normal workload at the meat processing plants she was assigned to cover.

It was her third straight week of double coverage, according to agency schedules given to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

A few weeks earlier, one of Arriaga's co-workers had sent a concerned email to their supervisor: "Are they trying to make something happen to Rosalie carrying her child the last couple of weeks!!" the co-worker asked.

Arriaga, a consumer safety inspector in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, had been put in charge of food safety at six corporate slaughterhouses around Omaha.

When Arriaga finally called in sick that Friday, there was no one available to replace her.

During that shift, those meatpacking plants went hours without someone overseeing the complicated logistics of food safety.

Arriaga declined to comment for this story, but she confirmed the account. And her story of scrambling to complete too much work in too little time is not uncommon.

Inspectors say that because of long-standing problems that have become worse in recent years, adequate oversight of meat processing has become all but impossible.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service's mission is "protecting the public's health by ensuring the safety of meat, poultry, and processed egg products," according to its website. Food safety experts say that without proper inspection inside these plants, the risk of foodborne illness for millions of Americans increases sharply.

Each plant has a veterinarian who inspects animals before slaughter and at least two types of inspectors inside each facility: The first are slaughter line inspectors who examine each carcass to make sure that the meat is safe for consumption, and who are mandated to be present in order for a plant to operate.

The second are consumer safety inspectors, who oversee a plant's food safety plans and perform sanitation checks at multiple facilities during any given shift.

Consumer safety inspectors also routinely take over slaughter line inspections in order to give those employees breaks or to fill in when an employee calls in sick or quits unexpectedly — a job duty that many of these federal employees say has become more common in recent years because of vacancies in those positions.

A nine-month investigation by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found dozens of similar situations in the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, with routine vacancies that leave the remaining federal food inspectors vulnerable to burnout, work overload and other job hazards.

In several cases, employees in other roles have been forced to abandon their own job duties to cover the slaughter line inspections mandated for plants to operate.

USDA representatives reiterated during a phone interview that every carcass on the line is inspected without fail — if they weren't, private slaughterhouses could not operate.

Administrators on the call disputed that the public has seen any increase in risk because of other employees filling in on the slaughter line and said staffing for all positions is adequate.

Officials did acknowledge their recent work to hire more meat inspectors, including a recent move to reclassify a number of positions to make them more attractive to entry-level applicants.

"I cannot speak to any anecdotes," said Food Safety and Inspection Service Administrator Carmen Rottenberg. "But I can say that we work really hard to keep our vacancy rates low."

Agency representatives also suggested that criticism of the meat inspection system was generated by unions and pro-union lobbyists, while dismissing reports of insufficient inspection as isolated incidents that do not properly represent the agency's successful effort to keep America's food supply safe.

But a review of internal documents, hundreds of pages of public records and interviews with more than a dozen current and former food inspectors, as well as more than 30 food safety experts and industry representatives, reveal the extent to which key agency duties are going unfulfilled.

As of March, in some districts, up to one in every seven federally funded meat and poultry inspection positions were sitting vacant — a total of almost 700 nationwide.

The shortage has created situations in which some inspectors are forced to cover double and triple the number of meat processing plants for which they would normally be scheduled.

In some cases, facilities go entire shifts without supervision from consumer safety inspectors, who enforce important sanitation policies and oversee facilities' food safety plans and the production of processed meat products.

Internal emails show that leadership at the agency sometimes notifies plants of the gaps in inspection by consumer safety inspectors, which both agency employees and experts say gives companies increased opportunity to avoid food safety rules.

Multiple consumer safety inspectors said their superiors asked them to seek permission each time they marked down a task as incomplete in the agency's internal tracking system, creating a "chilling effect" and encouraging the underreporting of incomplete assignments.

Such a task might be inspecting the facility for mold, or improperly stored chemicals, or even checking that a plant is following the proper allergen labeling rules.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service currently manages about 7,800 total inspector positions. This roughlymirrors the agency's staffing levels in 1980, although the amount of meat and poultry consumed in the country has increased dramatically during the same period, from 193.7 pounds per person in 1980 to a record 219.5 pounds in 2018, according to USDA data.

Despite the agency's stagnant number of jobs, it's had trouble even filling the positions that already exist in recent years. The total vacancy rate for all Food Safety and Inspection Service inspector positions in March was 8.75%, according to agency data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

The shortage is worst in the Midwestern districts encompassing parts of Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado, which supply most of the country's meat. As of March, more than 17% of all slaughter line inspection positions in the Denver and Des Moines Districts were vacant.

And when there are too few slaughter line inspectors working in a plant, consumer safety inspectors working in those districts say they must also shoulder the line-inspection duties, thus failing to complete more of their own tasks.

But "we don't believe we are short-staffed," Rottenberg said.

Dr. Philip Bronstein, assistant administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service's department of field operations, said, "We're always going to have the resources to ensure we are inspecting every single carcass that goes through a slaughter facility."

Just a few weeks after Arriaga called in sick, another consumer safety inspector in the same Nebraska circuit was scheduled for five straight days of 16.5-hour shifts.

Schedules from June show that yet another consumer safety inspector in Jacksonville, Florida, was slated to visit 18 plants in one day.

It's a job that his co-workers said would require between five and six hours of driving, even with favorable traffic.

An inspector in the same circuit said that even forgoing bathroom breaks or time to eat, that would still only leave roughly six minutes in each facility — not nearly enough to perform a proper inspection, which multiple agency employees said should take at least an hour.

Employees at the Food Safety and Inspection Service have a name for the hours spent driving hundreds of miles between work sites only to walk inside and almost immediately walk back out: "windshield duty."

"I can say with certainty these are not isolated incidents," said Stan Painter, a 30-plus-year veteran of the agency and chairman of the American Federation of Government Employees' food safety inspectors union.

"It's only a matter of time before there's a big outbreak of something, and I'm of the opinion that the consumer is already being affected," he said. "The agency has ostrich syndrome. Everyone's head is in the sand."

3D-printed parts could be a way to trim costs and stay battle-ready

In a bid to control the soaring cost of keeping its aging fleets battle-ready, the Air Force is pursuing legal arrangements with defense contractors that allow it to 3D print old aircraft parts rather than order a new one.

The Air Force has printed more than 1,000 aircraft parts to date, officials say, allowing it to avoid paying exorbitant prices for parts that are no longer in production. Manufacturers, which often hold intellectual property agreements covering the parts, typically receive a flat fee in exchange.

Such agreements are part of a broader set of efforts underway at the Pentagon to use next-generation technologies to drive costs out of the Pentagon's vast, taxpayer-funded supply chain, while also ensuring equipment problems don't hurt the military's readiness.

"We need a new set of rules and a new business model to work with industry so that old parts don't become the limiting factor of how ready we are to go to war," Will Roper, assistant Air Force secretary, said in a recent interview.

One such deal with GE Aviation, the jet engine division of General Electric, covers two specific components of the F110 turbofan engine that powers the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets. Under the terms of the agreement, GE is to bring its own 3D printers into Air Force repair depots and train the military's repairers to use them, Roper said. It also comes with a licensing scheme in which the Air Force pays GE a fixed fee every time it prints a spare.

3D printers create three-dimensional products from a wide variety of materials by building them using specialized computer software.

Roper said the Defense Department does not mind the fees as long as it contributes to the service's readiness goals. The Air Force faces the dual challenges of keeping more of its planes battle-ready while also increasing its total number of squadrons.

"Fighting over the legality of whether we can reverse-engineer a part is not where we want to spend our time," he said. "We'd like to pay a fair price for being able to do that and move on."

3D printers are seen as a possible solution for a problem that has dogged the Air Force since the Cold War. The Defense Department estimates that about 70% of a military airplane's long-term cost actually comes from sustaining it. The purchase price, even though it is usually in the tens of millions of dollars, is smaller than the combined cost of repairing and maintaining it.

The problem is made worse by the fact that today's Air Force uses more old aircraft than at any time in the service's history.

At the beginning of 2019 the Air Force had about 5,500 aircraft, by far the largest force in the world. But a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office placed their average age at 28 years. Hundreds of them are approaching their sixth decade of service, and they are expected to become even more costly to maintain as they age.

Part of the problem is that aircraft manufacturers often hold intellectual property agreements for aircraft parts that give them a degree of control over the price. In some cases, contractors have used intellectual property arrangements to justify outrageous price increases. Government officials overseeing the supply contracts often don't challenge the price increases or even ask for financial data that would show whether the price is fair.

In a report from the Defense Department inspector general released earlier this year, an aircraft supply holding company called Transdigm was accused of earning "excessive profits" on a sample of 47 spare parts. The inspector general identified profit margins ranging from 17% to well over 4,000% for specific spare parts.

The company later paid the Defense Department back $16.1 million for the products. Company executives said Transdigm had not broken any procurement laws and described the payment as voluntary.

In other cases, parts are hard to find because the aircraft's original manufacturer has shut down the production line. When such a part is critically necessary to achieve the military's readiness goals, price concerns often go by the wayside.

"What I have a hard time doing is getting excited about intellectual property that is on the geriatric side of the Air Force," Roper said. "For a part that is sitting on a 40or 50-year airplane, it's hard for me to think that that (intellectual property) is there for the right reasons."

Ethanol state lawmakers praise Trump administration plan to boost production

WASHINGTON — Renewable-fuel groups, farm organizations and Midwestern politicians have embraced the Trump administration’s new ethanol proposal as a desperately needed production boost.

“Both farmers and ethanol producers have been really hurting for some time now,” Renewable Fuels Nebraska Executive Director Troy Bredenkamp said in a statement Friday. “Today’s announcement by President Trump is not a cure-all, but it will certainly begin the process of recovering and making right some of the many EPA decisions that have hindered the ethanol sector.”

Bredenkamp described the move as an overdue attempt to repair damage to the Renewable Fuel Standard that requires 15 billion gallons of ethanol a year to be blended into the nation’s fuel supply.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been generously granting small refinery waivers from those requirements. The ethanol industry says that has destroyed product demand and resulted in both idled plants and lower prices for the corn that feeds them.

Under the new plan from the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, gallons lost to such waivers in the future would be reallocated back into the blending requirements.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said that while the reallocation of lost gallons is the “biggest prize of all,” the administration’s proposal also includes removing barriers to the sale of higher ethanol blends known as E15, supporting infrastructure projects related to higher blends and working on related trade issues.

Still, many details remain to be fleshed out, and the country’s oil and gas interests pledged to fight it every step of the way.

Scott Segal, an energy sector lobbyist, disputed the claim that waivers destroy ethanol demand.

Segal also suggested that in trying to placate Midwestern farmers, Trump could cost himself support among blue-collar union workers in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

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Indeed, some refiners say the ethanol industry will never be satisfied and characterized Friday’s announcement as the result of political extortion by corn-state lawmakers.

American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Mike Sommers released a joint statement with American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers President and CEO Chet Thompson.

The administration’s “misguided” plan would punish companies trying to comply with the RFS requirements, they said. “It is by no means a win-win. We will vigorously challenge this new policy in the weeks to come and continue advocating for Congress to reform the RFS.”

Those representing corn country, however, were all about the Friday victory lap, rejoicing at the announcement and touting their own advocacy of it.

The Republican governors of Nebraska and Iowa both praised the move, with Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts saying it will “bolster the RFS and ethanol production at a critical time for our nation’s rural economy, which has been suffering from low commodity prices.”

Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said the announcement complements the administration’s allowing year-round sales of E15 and Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said it “means more certainty for families, businesses, and communities across the Good Life.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, called the announcement “great news for Iowa and rural America” while Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said “Nebraskans are grateful that the EPA is committed to E15 being available year-around and following the law when it comes to small refinery exemptions.”

Democrats in Iowa and Nebraska had seized on the waivers as potent political ammunition.

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, for example, recently wrote a letter with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue highlighting ethanol plant closures and asking the department to study the economic impact of the RFS waivers.

Even Republicans in the Midwest had grown impatient with the administration’s handling of the issue. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler came under fire from some GOP lawmakers suggesting oil and gas interests have too much influence over his agency.

In a statement Friday, Wheeler said the new deal is the result of the president’s leadership.

“Today’s agreement is the latest in a series of steps we have taken to expand domestic energy production and improve the RFS program that will result in sustained biofuel production to help American farmers,” Wheeler said.

The proposal still must clear various bureaucratic hurdles before being finalized.

Asked about the potential for the administration to backslide, Grassley said he would “continue to hold EPA’s feet to the fire so that they do as President Trump committed.”

It is possible that oil and gas companies will take their case to court, he acknowledged, but said there’s no reason a judge should strike down rules that comply with the law.

“They can sue if they want to,” Grassley said. “We’ve been fighting them for 30 years.”

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'College is not cheap': Campuses create food banks for financially struggling students

Food pantries have popped up on college campuses across the Midwest and throughout the nation to lighten the financial hardships many students face.

Nebraska Wesleyan University opened its pantry last month. Creighton University opened its Creighton Cupboard in January. Metropolitan Community College is creating a program.

Numerous others, including the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Iowa, have started pantries within the past three years.

College has become far more expensive over time. And colleges see more first-generation students (the first in their families to attend) than they used to, and many of those students have less financial support from their parents than their classmates.

A national report last year estimated that well above one-third of students surveyed felt uncertain about their ability to afford and acquire nutritious food.

Katelyn Schwindt

Katelyn Schwindt, a first-generation college student from Crescent, Iowa, works for the year-old food pantry at the College of St. Mary. She studies applied psychology and human services at the school.

Schwindt has three jobs, including a campus internship and a job in a Council Bluffs group home for the developmentally disabled. She said she, too, uses the pantry once a month to reduce her financial duress.

“A lot of students here are mothers and full-time workers and full-time students,” she said of the College of St. Mary.

The pantry, she said, is “super awesome.”

College is not cheap, no matter where you go,” said Schwindt, a senior. “People should not be afraid to get help.”

In most cases, college food pantries are stocked with donated canned goods, pasta, beverages, hygiene products and other items provided by alumni, students, staffers and faculty members. Some also offer food that goes uneaten at college dining halls. Some help the students pursue government assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The College Board, a national nonprofit group, said that even adjusting for inflation, the cost of going to public four-year colleges tripled from 1988 to 2018 and doubled for public two-year schools and private four-year colleges.


Canned fruit along with a variety of other foods are available at the Creighton Cupboard located in McGloin Residence Hall.

A lab at the University of Wisconsin surveyed 43,000 students at 66 colleges and published a report last year. The survey found that 36% of four-year university students and 42% at two-year colleges said they had been “food insecure” within the preceding 30 days.

Food insecurity is defined as limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate and safe food. The same survey found that similar percentages of students experienced “housing insecurity,” such as the inability to pay rent or the need to move frequently.

“The problem has always been there,” said Kristina Cammarano, assistant vice chancellor for student success at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. For years, she said, graduates bragged about surviving on ramen noodles.

Now, Cammarano said, colleges want to provide “a culture of care” because it’s not only unhealthy to go hungry, but it also affects academic performance and perseverance.

The College and University Food Bank Alliance estimated it has 790 member colleges, up from 240 in 2015.

A Government Accountability Office report late last year said that “rising college costs have outpaced federal and state grant aid and, over time, have led to an increasing share of the cost being borne by students and their families.”

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The same report said that greater numbers of students from low-income homes are enrolling in college. For instance, the report said, the percentage of undergraduates who had household income under 130% of the federal poverty line jumped from 28% in 1996 to 39% three years ago.

Megan Patel, program coordinator for the Husker Pantry at UNL, said her program started in January 2017. Some students are “just trying to make a better life for them and their families” and don’t fit the stereotype of the financially comfortable college student.

“I think sometimes people feel if you can afford to go to college, you can afford ... food and all the costs of living that come with being on your own and being in college,” Patel said.

Rachel Pokora, a co-leader of the Prairie Wolf Pantry at Nebraska Wesleyan, said 25 people used the service in the first week.

Last spring a social work professor, Lisa Borchardt, listened to a student talk about having trouble concentrating because she hadn’t eaten that day.

Borchardt set out a table in her academic department for food donations. That led to creation this year of a formal food pantry, said Pokora, a professor of communication studies at Wesleyan.

“I think being a student has gotten more expensive,” Pokora said. “I’m sure that some students always have had this struggle. But more have that struggle now.”


Bread, milk and butter are among some the staple foods always available at the Creighton Cupboard.

At Creighton, students Denisse Navarro-Perez and Alexandra Van Cleave, both sophomores, work part time at the Creighton Cupboard in McGloin Hall.

They don’t dig into students’ finances or probe. If a person says he or she needs food, that is proof enough.

More than 60 students have signed up to use the pantry. The student workers said some students feel compelled to talk about why they need the pantry. Some are mothers. Some have had a bad turn in family finances. Some have parents going through miserable divorces.

“When you start college, you have this idea in your head of how it’s going to go,” Navarro-Perez said. Students cry sometimes when they describe their circumstances, the two pantry workers said.

“We want to create this welcoming space,” Van Cleave said. “We have a willing ear.”

They listen and let students browse through their racks of food and hygiene items. It’s a stopgap measure, but the pantry helps students over one more hurdle.

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)