WASHINGTON – Vacancies within the Food Safety and Inspection Service don't mean fewer inspectors in the nation's meat processing plants, an FSIS official said in a March 19 blog post.

Aaron Lavallee, deputy assistant administrator for FSIS' Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education, wrote the blog in response to claims that inspector vacancies at the agency were resulting in more food recalls. Lavallee's response comes as groups representing food safety, environmental, labor and other interests have ramped up protests against the US Department of Agriculture's plan to modernize inspections at poultry-processing plants.

The post, "Setting the Record Straight on FSIS Inspector Vacancy Rates", said a New York Times article which ran in February was based on "misleading and inaccurate information" provided by Food & Water Watch. The New York Times later issued a correction to its report.

"The article was supposedly based on data from a Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request by an outside group called Food & Water Watch — but Food & Water Watch had not yet received that FOIA report," Lavallee wrote. "Yet, they told the Times they had received it, and the Times unfortunately reported faulty information without verification.

"The FOIA referenced in the article is actually just being released today (March 19)...The report will show that, at the end of Fiscal Year 2013, there was a vacancy rate of 7.08 percent among FSIS’ inspectors. Food & Water Watch claimed, and the New York Times reported, that inspectors in the Raleigh District faced an 11 percent vacancy rate. In fact, the vacancy rate there is currently 8.27 percent."

Food & Water Watch recently launched a series of advertisements in Washington, DC media urging President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to rescind the Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule. Also, more than 60 members of Congress wrote a letter to Vilsack urging him to conduct an additional review of the impact of the proposed rule on public health and animal welfare.

FSIS’ Lavallee maintained that no processing plant is allowed to operate without the required number of FSIS inspectors. He noted that the agency’s vacancy rate fluctuates as workers leave FSIS or retire. FSIS is working to fill open positions, he added.

"It is irresponsible to attempt to confuse FSIS vacancy rates with plant inspector shortages and then imply that meat and poultry products are less safe as a result," Lavallee concluded. "There is no connection between recent recalls and FSIS vacancy rates, and any claims that these issues are linked are false."