CLOSURE OF 5 USDA/FSIS OFFICES IMPACT FOOD SAFETY?
USDA/FSIS announced on January 9, 2012 that it would close 5 of its 15 District Offices, as part of a consolidation which would decrease the agency’s budget and save taxpayer dollars. This financially prudent move prompted the following statement by Andrew Lorenz, deputy district manager of the agency’s office in Minneapolis, one of the five offices to be closed:
“They wiped out the entire Midwest”, as quoted in an AP article on January 10, 2012.
Such a statement resonates with some folks, who question if closure of these five offices could adversely impact food safety imperatives. Such fears should be dispelled, which these brief comments will address.
About 20 years ago, FSIS had a district office in Billings, Montana with authority over Montana plants, including mine. This office was eliminated, with duties consolidated into the Minneapolis district office. This consolidation had NO adverse impact on the ability of Montana plants to produce safe food. This current FSIS consolidation will likewise not adversely impact food safety or public health.
One of the ten remaining district offices is in Denver, Colorado. The entire states of Montana and Wyoming are much closer to Denver than they are to Minneapolis. When the Minneapolis office is closed, Minnesota plants can be more efficiently covered by the remaining office in Des Moines than the Minneapolis office could ever have covered plants in Montana or Wyoming. But this issue should not be decided primarily by physical juxtaposition of district offices to meat establishments. Rather, the primary focus of consolidation should be on FSIS’ actual physical presence and inspection of production at every meat establishment.
For example, let’s examine my plant, which I sold in 2005, and is still in full-time production. There are five levels of agency oversight at this plant, as follows:
- The in-plant inspector, who is there every day.
- The inspector’s supervisor, who is a SVMO, a Supervisory Veterinarian Medical Officer. This SVMO lives 3.5 hours away, and comes to this plant every 3 weeks or so. Whenever the plant kills an animal with potentially questionable health conditions, the SVMO must inspect it.
- The SVMO’s supervisor, who lives 2 hours away, and comes to the plant once a year or so. This position is called a Front Line Supervisor (FLS).
- The deputy manager of the Minneapolis district office, who is the afore-mentioned Andrew Lorenz. I don’t believe Mr. Lorenz has yet to visit our local plant. And prior to Mr. Lorenz’s arrival, I would guess that I received visits by deputy managers only once every several years.
- The manager of the Minneapolis District Office. I don’t remember my plant EVER being visited by any manager of the Minneapolis District Office. I have seen the last two managers of the Minneapolis district office in Montana for general meetings, but not at my plant.
Therefore, when the Minneapolis district office closes, all of the “Hands On” inspection at this plant will remain as is, with no interruption, as levels 1 – 3 above will remain intact. The only change will be that levels 4 & 5 (which are not involved in inspecting meat in the least) will be moved from Minneapolis to another existing district office, which I presume will be Denver.
The bottom line is simply that we taxpayers are paying for a redundancy of levels 4 & 5 across this country, as well as the expenses of running district offices, including space rent, utilities, phones, etc. Reducing the number of district offices from 15 to 10 will have zero impact on meat inspection, but will eliminate layers of costly and duplicative bureaucratic waste.
Additional layers of new bureaucratic positions have been created in recent years, such as “Humane Handling Specialists”. These folks visit slaughter establishments to ensure plants are treating livestock humanely. The minority of plants slaughter, while a much higher % of plants only process. As such, the majority of plants in these districts do not require oversight for humane handling of livestock. I respectfully submit that agency verification of individual plant’s compliance with humane handling requirements can easily be conducted by agency personnel in layers 2 & 3 above, saving additional budgetary dollars which are being wastefully spent for the new position of Humane Handling Specialists.
Around 6 years ago, a new FSIS division was created entitled OPEER, meaning Office of Program Evaluation, Enforcement and Review. This new division generated additional new positions, to perform work which had previously been handled by non-OPEER individuals. OPEER has four regional offices, all in the same buildings (but in different offices) which house four of the ten district offices which will still remain. Perhaps OPEER duties can be reassumed by the same agency folks who performed this work prior to the creation of OPEER? Budget cuts and taxpayer outrage is the mother of inventions and innovations, which FSIS must proactively embrace. In my most recent visit to the Minneapolis District Office, I paid a visit to the OPEER office in the same building, but no one was in. It is important to realize that the OPEER office in Minneapolis is not one of OPEER’s four regional offices. This means that in addition to OPEER’s 4 regional offices, OPEER has many more offices throughout the country, all requiring taxpayer expense. Maybe now is the time to eliminate OPEER, and reassign its duties back to previous FSIS entities to better utilize existing talent, absent additional and unnecessary personnel positions.
A review of America’s map, and the locations of the ten remaining district offices reflect a paucity of agency bureaucratic coverage in the western third of America. Again, this FSIS reorganization does NOT reduce actual inspection coverage in the western states, but merely reduces the level of costly bureaucratic supervisory oversight. District offices which will remain in Alameda, California and Denver, Colorado will now cover a larger geographical territory. This means that Denver and Alameda officials will have more states and plants to cover, but not to visit. Why do I say this? Please refer to my previous list of five layers of FSIS personnel with authority over my plant, and see that levels 4 & 5 (from the district office) rarely visit plants in the field. Why should they? The agency already has three levels of inspection oversight at all plants, so why should we burden taxpayers with the travel costs of district office personnel who infrequently bless remote plants with their presence?
I respectfully suggest that layer #3, that being the position of a Front Line Supervisor as described above, could be eliminated, with duties transferred to deputy district office managers, currently the #4 layer described above. Only in America can we deceive ourselves into thinking that plants need three layers of inspection oversight, in addition to two layers of headquarters’ non-inspection bureaucracy. With the development of technology, including laptops for all inspectors, now is the time that FSIS closely scrutinize its multiple layers of redundant oversight, many of which require government vehicles, while accumulating motel room costs, meals, etc.
I heartily congratulate USDA Sec Tom Vilsack, Under Sec Dr. Elisabeth Hagen and Administrator Al Almanza for the foresight and courage to tackle wasteful government spending, and design FSIS reorganization which will still protect public health while being a better steward of taxpayer dollars. Corporations are forced into such painful decisions when economic reality dictates change. Government entities must likewise appropriately respond. We are fortunate that in this case, FSIS can accomplish sizeable budget reductions without jeopardizing public health or safe food goals. These top three officials deserve our support!
And contrary to self-serving statements of some, the entire Midwest is not being wiped out, nor is any other segment of America.
John W. Munsell, Manager
Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
212 S. Jordan
Miles City, MT 59301