March: Biodefense & food supply safetyFSIS exemplifies growing inadequacy of U.S. food inspection regime

Published 7 March 2008

Decline and fall: In FY 1981, FSIS spent $13.22 per thousand pounds of meat and poultry inspected and passed; by FY 2007, the figure had fallen to $8.26 per thousand pounds; in FY 1981 FSIS employed about 190 workers per billion pounds of meat and poultry inspected and passed; by FY 2007, FSIS employed fewer than 88 workers per billion pounds

If you want to know what is wrong with the U.S. food inspection regime, look no further than the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The FSIS is the federal regulator of meat, poultry, and egg products, and it faces resource limitations that make it more difficult for the agency to ensure the safety of the food supply. OMB Watch writes that although the agency’s budget has risen since it was created, staffing levels have dropped steadily. Widespread vacancies in the agency have spread FSIS’s inspection force too thin. Meanwhile, the number of meat, poultry, and egg product recalls has risen, and a recent recall of 143 million pounds of beef is the largest in the nation’s history.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) created FSIS in 1981. Federal law requires the agency to monitor the slaughter, processing, and labeling of all meat and poultry and to inspect meat and poultry to ensure products are not contaminated or adulterated. Egg products also fall under the agency’s jurisdiction. The agency is responsible for ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of the billions of pounds of meat, poultry, and egg products that enter the market each year. Unlike many other federal regulatory agencies, the budget for FSIS has seen a marked increase since its inception. From FY 1981 to FY 2007, appropriated funds for the agency increased 25 percent when adjusted for inflation. The bulk of that growth has occurred in the last twelve years. In particular, the agency has enjoyed significant budget increases over the past three fiscal years. In FY 2006, FSIS was appropriated $830 million; in FY 2007, $890 million; and in FY 2008, $930 million — a two-year increase of 7.5 percent when adjusted for inflation. President Bush’s proposed FY 2009 budget calls for another increase of $22 million, to $952 million. When adjusting for inflation, the proposed increase will likely be negligible — holding funding for FSIS level.

Meanwhile, meat, and poultry consumption in the United States has increased sharply. Since FSIS began operations, pounds of slaughtered meat and poultry inspected and approved by the agency have doubled — from about 52 billion pounds in 1981 to about 104 billion pounds in 2007. Much of the increase is due to the expanding U.S. poultry market. Pounds of poultry approved by FSIS nearly quadrupled during that time. Because of the increase in production, FSIS staff and resources become