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Should Floridians be concerned about food inspector cutbacks?

We have previously discussed the dangers that Floridians face when the food we eat is not produced or handled properly. Federal food safety inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture play a significant role in monitoring food production processes and the food itself to help ensure consumer safety.

According to a group called Food & Water Watch, there aren't enough inspectors. In a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, FWW's leader addressed the staffing issues in the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service that she says have caused gaps in inspection.

The consumer group says it has obtained FSIS emails that provide evidence that processing plants were not inspected because of lack of employees. One, it says, noted "severe" manpower shortages in one state.

Other emails reportedly directed inspectors away from processing plants because they were needed at slaughterhouses. The FWW executive director, however, noted that a post on the USDA's own website earlier this year said that "the new methods for poultry slaughter" require fewer federal inspectors.

The FWW has been after the USDA and FSIS for awhile about the safety ramifications of its staffing. It sent a letter to the FSIS in February that called out the service for relying on temporary inspectors and leaving positions vacant due to a hiring freeze. The letter linked an uptick in recalled food products to this shortage of inspectors.

After The New York Times reported on that letter, an FSIS official responded publicly. He contended that "no plant in America is allowed to operate if it does not have the required number of safety inspectors in the plant at all times, and every plant currently operating in America has the necessary food inspection staff." He also said there was "no connection between recent recalls and FSIS vacancy rates."

Consumer product safety is something for which we rely on the government to protect us from defective products. It's not an area in which most people want to see budget cutbacks -- particularly in food safety inspections. However, food producers still have a financial incentive to ensure the safety of their products. Civil lawsuits by people sickened by contaminated food can cost these producers significantly -- not just in money but in harm to their reputation and their business.

Source: Food Safety News, "Consumer Group Again Calls on FSIS to Address Food Safety Inspector Shortages" Lydia Zuraw, Jul. 16, 2014

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