Union head claims USDA tried to intimidate employees

WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the union that represents 6,000 federal food inspectors told a congressional committee Thursday that the Agriculture Department tried to intimidate him and other employees who reported violations of regulations, an allegation denied by the agency.

Union chief Stan Painter said that following a mad cow disease scare in 2003, he told superiors that new food safety regulations for slaughtered cattle were not being uniformly enforced. Painter said he was told to drop the matter, and when he didn’t, was grilled by department officials and then placed on disciplinary investigative status.

Painter said he was eventually exonerated, but the incident “has caused a chilling effect on others within my bargaining unit to come forward and stand up when agency management is wrong.” He said that supervisors tell workers to “let the system work” rather than cite slaughterhouses for violations.

Painter made the allegations at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform domestic policy subcommittee, which was looking into slaughterhouse practices following humane violations at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., which led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history.

Those violations, caught on undercover video by an investigator of the Humane Society of the United States, showed workers dragging cows with chains, shocking them with electric prods and shooting streams of water in their faces. The cows were “downers” — those too sick or injured to stand — and the USDA shut down the plant, saying the company hadn’t prevented downer cattle, which pose a greater risk of illnesses such as mad cow disease, from entering the food supply.

Dr. Richard Raymond, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, said that Painter’s case predated him, but he denied that the agency was intimidating inspectors. He said that last year, the department suspended 66 plants, including 12 slaughterhouses for inhumane handling practices.

“I don’t believe the entire work force is cowering from us,” he said, adding that he gets e-mails from employees all the time who want to see things done differently.

Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees slaughterhouses, said in a telephone interview that the agency had looked into Painter’s allegations about regulations not being enforced, and found no evidence to support his claims. Asked about him being placed on disciplinary investigative status and then exonerated, she said she couldn’t talk about administrative matters involving employees.

The chairman of the subcommittee, Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, challenged Raymond on a USDA audit conducted at the Westland/Hallmark last year which found no violations at the plant.

“Yet, only a few months later, a Humane Society undercover investigation revealed that the USDA’s findings were a dismal reflection of the reality at Westland/Hallmark,” Kucinich said.

“If we had seen this egregious behavior going on,” Raymond said, “of course they would have not passed the audit.”

Raymond said that the failure to uncover the animal abuse was not because of a lack of inspectors, adding that he believes the agency has enough to do the job effectively.

Several lawmakers challenged him, citing a study released Thursday on humane handling by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm. The GAO found that FSIS staffing levels have decreased since 1995, even as the amount of meat and poultry inspected has increased.

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