Of Unpaid Meat Inspectors

Jan. 17, 2019

The government shutdown is taking an ongoing, and worsening, toll on meat plant operations.

As the government shutdown enters its 27th day with no end in sight, it’s important to remember that two classes of people are getting hurt: 1) federal workers, and 2) the rest of us.

The workers who do jobs that we depend on have to keep doing them with no clue as to when they might eventually get paid for them. I don’t care how dedicated someone is; worrying about how you’re going to pay for your housing and groceries has got to be a distraction.

I am now working on an article for our March issue about how the Trump administration, at midpoint, has affected the food industry. One of my sources had something to say about the situation with meat inspectors with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). His comments were too good to delay until March. The following is from Andrew Lorenz, president of We R Food Safety!, a food industry consulting firm that specializes in safety-related compliance and operational issues:

The vast majority of FSIS inspectors are on the job. We are hearing of increased sick calls, however, the real issue has been the frustration the inspectors are feeling; when an inspector is having a bad day everyone is having a bad day.

In our slaughter establishments we have had several that have slowed lines and have heard of FSIS tasks not being conducted. However, overall the FSIS team is pulling through. The issue will come in as the lack of inspectors pay carries on: How long will inspectors be able to pay their bills? What happens when they can’t pay for gas to get to work? Remember most establishments are in rural areas.

If the impasse is not settled soon my expectation is that we will reach a critical point where the agency will have to find a way to either modify the rules on inspection (and if they go this route expect lawsuits to fly), or establishments will not be able to produce products. The state inspection programs do not have the manpower to assist for any length of time, i.e., we are heading towards a cascade of plants not being able to process animals in slaughter if things don’t change.

We have seen several isolated incidents that indicate that FSIS inspection team is feeling the impact of the shutdown. The line inspectors, i.e., those that perform carcass-by-carcass inspection, are also the lowest paid, they are the ones who feel the negative impact first, and it is showing with sick calls.

Again, what happens when their credit cards are maxed out and they can’t pay for gas? Industry grinds to a halt. The impact is being felt by the larger producers already. Smaller producers typically have a higher paid inspector as the inspector must be able to cover multiple production processes (slaughter to jerky), however again, we have isolated incidents of them reacting in a very negative manner, resulting in the need to contact front-line supervisors and or district offices to resolve the issues.