WASHINGTON – The Food Safety and Inspection Service and Agricultural Marketing Service need to improve how the agencies manage employee overtime, according to a recent report from the US Department of Agriculture's Office of the Inspector General.

The agency reviewed how FSIS and AMS manage their workforces during a time of budget restrictions and reduced workforces. In its audit report "FSIS' and AMS' Field-Level Workforce Challenges", the OIG reported that FSIS inspectors worked far more overtime hours than their AMS counterparts, which could impact food safety in US meat plants.

"Despite the argument that overworked employees are more likely to commit errors, some FSIS inspectors are working many hours above a normal 80 hour per two-week pay period—more than 400 of FSIS’ approximately 10,000 inspectors averaged more than 120 hours each pay period for the entire FY 2012," the report stated. "Our analysis showed that 1 inspector averaged 179 hours, 3 inspectors averaged over 160 hours, and 14 averaged over 150 hours."

Additionally, FSIS cannot properly bill for inspection services performed during overtime hours due to outdated systems that require manual data entry, the OIG said in the report.

FSIS said it was unaware of the overtime situation, but they doubted working overtime for extended hours would impact inspectors' performance. Also, FSIS said the agency has not limited the amount of overtime worked for extended periods of time.

"OIG maintains that overworked FSIS inspectors may be risking their own and the public’s health, especially if they are tired or fatigued while performing crucial food safety-related tasks," the agency said. "Additionally, industry should be properly billed for inspection services performed during overtime hours."

In response to the OIG findings, FSIS said the agency would review current management controls used to address excessive overtime hours or to approve exceptions to overtime limits. FSIS said the outcome of such a review would determine if an additional internal audit should be conducted to include effects of extended overtime when reviewing employee fitness for duty.

However, FSIS noted that employees are responsible for doing the work if overtime is required, and that in certain situations, "the agency must make exceptions to overtime limits in order to meet its statutory obligations."
The OIG report also raised concerns about the use of camera-based systems for grading meat. The agency questioned if the camera system was objective and transparent. Currently, about 40 percent of beef processed in the US are graded in facilities that use camera-based grading systems, according to OIG.

"When AMS initially established these classifications, industry objected that the cameras’ grading did not conform to what the graders were doing in the plants; ultimately, AMS agreed to lower the grades," the OIG report stated. "The new lower grading classifications meant more beef would receive higher grades, which may be correct. If these classifications are not correct; however, and the marbling scores originally determined by the agency were more accurate, then, comparatively, consumers may be overpaying more than $375 million a year for their beef products."

AMS said it would engage third-party experts by September to review current grading methodologies and propose improvements to the image grading systems. The review is slated to begin in December. The agency also said it would make public a summary of the review and proposed modifications or changes to the protocols for the image grading systems.