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 roughly mirrors 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.”