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Lack of Meat Inspectors Puts Nation's Food at Risk

The USDA currently does not have enough veterinarians on staff to properly inspect the U.S. meat supply. (Pixabay)
The USDA currently does not have enough veterinarians on staff to properly inspect the U.S. meat supply. (Pixabay)
September 5, 2017

DENVER – A veterinarians' group is warning American consumers that the food supply could be in danger because of a growing shortage of federal meat and poultry inspectors.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has hundreds of job openings for veterinarians who serve as inspectors in the country's slaughterhouses, and the agency may not have enough money in the next budget to fill those positions.

Michael Gilsdorf, a former USDA inspector and former CEO of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, says the agency's overall vacancy rate is 12 percent, but is much higher in some regions.

"It's a chronic problem, but it's worse right now,” he states. “They've had a problem for the last five years with a shortage but it's never been this bad. In fact, it was last month when we were told that it was three of the different districts had over a 20 percent vacancy rate."

Veterinarians with the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service inspect beef, pork and poultry products at slaughterhouses and processing centers for potentially deadly pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria.

Gilsdorf says the shortage puts the public health, as well as the economic health of the meat processing industry, at risk.

Gilsdorf maintains the Trump administration's failure to fill key management positions at the inspection service is part of why there are too few veterinarians to inspect the food supply.

"They've got, I would call it, an artificial personnel ceiling because of the budget and so they can only hire so many people and they've already reached their limit, even though they have this huge vacancy," he explains.

Gilsdorf also says the USDA is at a competitive disadvantage in hiring because of low salaries and the lack of specialty pay for veterinarians.

"Basically, they're not competitive in the veterinary market,” he explains. “Only about 3 percent or less of the veterinarians that graduate are interested in public practice. Most of them are interested in going into small animal, companion animal medicine."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a significant increase in food borne illnesses between 2011 and 2016.

Gilsdorf says he hopes Congress will approve an increase in next year's budget to bring the inspection service up to full staff.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO