At FF&F, I’m often harsh on USDA/FSIS for poor oversight of their own inspection activities and enforcing 40 year old non-codified guidance. However, you will still see me using USDA research and policy decisions as source of credible primary material. After all, it’s right there in the agency’s mission:
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the
public health agency in the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) and is responsible for ensuring that meat,
poultry, and processed egg products are safe, wholesome,
and accurately labeled.
This is a huge endeavor, and for all my criticism, threading the line between public health, consumer advocacy, and some portion of business advocacy is an incredibly hard task that they do what they can with.
Unfortunately, because tackling this mission requires individuals with knowledge of food as an industry, and because the agency is part of the federal government, many people do not recognize any scientific information provided by USDA either because they believe they’re part of a grand conspiracy (which is a group I don’t expect to be reached by this post), or because so many senior members are inevitably connected to conflicts of interest from the business side of food.
However, of USDA’s approximately 100,000 employees, many of them are doctors, scientists, and public servants who believe in the mission. Perhaps even more compelling, there are many others who just have a “steady job” who don’t have a stake in the results. These folks produce great work that helps make our food supply safer. Work that is rigorous, effective, and from a market standpoint, impartial.
So I’ve generated this list to identify a few things to counter the “USDA isn’t an advocate for consumers” argument. To make it onto this list the items need to meet three criteria. First, that the actions taken are intended to protect the public or provide transparency; second, that the action taken doesn’t provide some obvious benefit or perk to industry; and third, that the action is transparent and verifiable (unlike an outbreak response or inspection/approval activities).
(Warning, reports quoted below detailing incidents of inhumane treatment of animals)
Longtime readers of this blog know that I have strong feelings about our responsibility to humanely treat the animals we use for meat, eggs, dairy, and fiber. Thankfully, this has been legislated since the 1950’s, and has been a critical part of FSIS enforcement since that time both because it has always had broad public support, and because generally we recognize it as the least we can do for animals we plan to eat.
However, slaughter isn’t a transparent process. Ignoring the confidentiality and other reasons most of us can’t just walk into a plant, there’s a market incentive. People who would otherwise purchase meat are turned off when they are exposed to the process. So when the doors are shut to protect the demand for the products, how are we supposed to know who’s adhering to the law for humane treatment and who is not?
Enter the FSIS Humane Handling Quarterly Reports and public humane handling enforcement actions. FSIS doesn’t screw around with these violations. Instead of unpublished enforcement waiting for a FOIA request, there’s 100% public posting of egregious violations that lead to inhumane treatment and botched euthanasia of animals intended for meat, with the full name of the company and their responses. An example from a company that had it’s ability to process animals suspended just last week reads:
On January 18, 2018, at approximately 3:23 p.m., [redacted] observed a customer (owner of animal) walk into a trailer to attempt to unload a live market hog. The CSIs observed the customer kick the hog in the left ham…the customer utilized the board to chop at the feet of the swine in order to force it to move forward…then wrapped the rope around the rear (hip area) of the hog to force it forward…the customer…dragged the hog forward. In doing so the hog lost its footing and was dragged on its rump from the trailer with an approximate one foot drop to the ground. Your establishment has a mobile metal ramp in the pen area, but it was not utilized…
Much more horrible actions such as botched/repeated stun attempts and other physical abuses are enforced as well, but this example provides a glimpse into the scope of humane handling that FSIS is willing to withdraw inspection for. And anyone who wants to purchase meat based on a company’s history of making sure animal euthanasia is as humane as possible has this transparent resource available to hold producers accountable with their dollars.
It’s great that we have an inspection system making sure producers of food are held to some sort of standard for consumer safety…until you realize that it’s just someone running around selling meat out of a backpack.
While FDA has implemented a mandatory registration system, the list isn’t made public for unknown reasons, so no one except FDA has any idea as to whether a facility is actually under inspection or not (I’ll have to rant about this separately in another post). Whereas not only does USDA make this list public so that anyone can independently verify that a manufacturer is actually registered, the require manufacturers who produce products without inspection to recall the products produced during that time.
This is an awesome resource for all customers purchasing meat, whether in industry or at the market, and helps ensure that anyone trying to sneak by without doing the bare minimum for food safety can’t hide it from us.
Whether or not you personally choose to buy certified Organic products, it’s important to all consumers that foods are labeled accurately when there’s value added to the claims. Selling a food that claims to be something it’s not is fraud.
Short of on-site auditing by individuals purchasing foods labeled organic, we rely on certifications provided by approved certification bodies that do the work for us to make sure it’s the genuine article. But what happens when someone takes a certificate, and just changes the information to tell us what we need to hear?
USDA anticipates this, and publishes a list of known fraudulent certificates so that anyone can check to see if the one they received is known to be fake. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a pretty good resource and does a good job at keeping the Organic label claim honest. This helps out both consumers making sure they spend their dollars on the genuine thing, and Organic producers by keeping confidence in their product and the certification.
4. The Pesticide Data Program
Partly due to changing science and understanding of the impacts of various pesticides on public health and the environment, and partly from the “natural” and “chemical-free” movements, consumers are very interested in pesticide use. Luckily, USDA has been providing annual summary reports on pesticide use since 1992. You can even download the raw data!
While there are some legitimate criticisms of this program (lack of glyphosate reporting, where they’ve deferred to FDA’s pending results) making this data public gives the ability of any scientist, reporter, activist group, or blogger the ability to review the data and evaluate whether current regulations and enforcement are adequate based on residues actually found out in the field.
They’ve also done specific reporting on pesticide residues on organic produce, again helping that certification hold it’s value. Seriously, go USDA! The data is there for anyone to dig into both to celebrate and criticize.
5. Posting of Recalls and Public Health Alerts
One that most people know about, but we often take for granted. Think about what a recall is: a company identifies (or has FSIS identify for them) an issue with a product that makes it either illegal to sell or potentially unsafe to sell to the public, so the company pulls it from the market. Who needs to be made aware that this happened?
Obviously anyone selling the product needs to know to pull it from the shelf, and they need to let their customers know that they should throw it away or bring it back to the store. But does the entire country need to know that the local supermarket is recalling their chicken salad because they forgot to label the walnuts?
Not only does USDA/FSIS make sure that the entire country knows when a company has a recall, but why they had the recall. They then keep a permanent public record that anyone who ever wants to buy a product or do any business with that company can look up with a simple google search.
FSIS even takes it a step further and makes recalling companies report just how many pounds of product was recalled, and who it was sold to (list of consignees, for class I recalls only). They update the list live as it unfolds so that consumers can look to see if someone downstream was purchasing the affected products. This is something FDA has decided is not possible.
In addition to publicizing these events, USDA uses this same forum to call out companies where a recall wasn’t effective or requested by issuing public health alerts. That way, even if most of the product has expired or already been eaten, the public is made aware so they can keep an eye out for food-borne illness that can take up to 70 days to manifest.
There are a thousand other ways that USDA/FSIS helps protect the public through policy-making, data collection, or enforcement, but these 5 are unique in that they’re immediately verifiable by anyone with access to a search engine, and that “big industry” doesn’t benefit by them unless they’re also advocating for the public. If anyone has anything else they think should be added to this list, please comment and I’d be happy to review and add it in!