Adversarial is the word many have used for decades to describe the relationship between meat and poultry processors and Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors. When I began covering this industry more than 30 years ago, I quickly discovered why this strained relationship has prevailed so long.
In the 1980s, one senior FSIS executive on the speaking circuit was frequently a member of industry panels at major conventions. During each Q&A session, members of the audience would ask him questions about new and pending regulations plus voice major concerns...and almost every time he would respond by saying something like, “It would be inappropriate for me to respond at this time as the agency is reviewing the issue.” His stonewalling caused some in the audience to look quizzically at each other, while others chuckled or grumbled under their breath.
Times have changed. During last month’s North American Meat Processors Association Meat Industry Management conference in Chicago, a food safety Q&A session was held. Dan Engeljohn, Ph.D., deputy assistant administrator with USDA-FSIS, was among three panel members who addressed questions and concerns from the audience.
It didn’t take long for the fi reworks to ignite. “The level of inspection and involvement of inspectors, the training of inspectors and the attitude of inspectors is so inconsistent throughout the US that it is appalling,” said one attendee. “What can be done to try to get all inspectors on the same page?”
Instead of stonewalling, Engeljohn acknowledged the situation and explained the agency has gone to great measures to ensure inspectors were on the same page, and he felt improvements have been made. But, he added, there is a process in place for supervisory personnel to step in and correct behavioral and policy interpretation problems.
“I hope the attitude of our inspection personnel is different today than it was 15 years ago, when we fi rst converted over the HACCP regulations – where we very clearly articulated that responsibility is in the hands of the industry to make safe products and the agency’s role is to verify that,” Engeljohn said.
The same audience member added he recently dealt with one inspector who subjectively decided his client’s approved labels were not good enough and must be changed. Another inspector modified an approved label on his own to make it “more accurate”, he added. Companies are wary of making appeals in cases like these because they fear inspector backlash, the audience member told Engeljohn. What’s more, it’s not uncommon for opinions of FSIS inspectors to vary wildly, he added.
Engeljohn urged packers and processors to make appeals in such cases, in addition to submitting comments to askFSIS and to work with their trade associations to get answers and clarifications from the agency. “The fact there appears to be fear in reporting this rogue behavior is a serious issue where we certainly do need to fi nd solutions,” he said.
Due to the size of the industry, there will likely always be some policy misinterpretations and rogue behavior exhibited by some FSIS personnel, but I admire Engeljohn for addressing such challenges head-on. It goes a long way toward creating partners....and not adversaries.