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Senator LEVIN. Our final panel today consists of representatives of inspectors and consumer groups.
First, we are going to hear from Kenneth Blaylock who is the National President of the American Federation of Government Employees. Mr. Blaylock is accompanied by Mr. James Murphy of Smyrna, Delaware.
The second witness on our panel is Vernie Gee, an inspector for the FSIS from Gardenia, California. Mr. Gee is accompanied by Thomas Devine, Legal Director of the Government Accountability Project which represents Government whistle blowers, who will recount his experiences in the field as an inspector.
Then our final witness is Rodney Leonard, the Executive Director of the Community Nutrition Institute and a former Administrator of the FSIS.
So, first, we are going to start with Ken Blaylock. We welcome
TESTIMONY OF KENNETH T. BLAYLOCK, NATIONAL PRESIDENT, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, ACCOMPANIED BY JAMES MURPHY, AFGE MEMBER AND USDA INSPECTOR, SMYRNA, DE
Mr. BLAYLOCK. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
For the record I do have Jim Murphy with me who is the past president of our Joint Council of Meat and Poultry Inspectors and is not a working inspector, and also Dave Karney, who is a working inspector out of the State of Ohio.
Mr. Chairman, I would like to preface my remarks or my statement, and I will summarize this statement for the sake of convenience, and I don't think I need the full 10 minutes anyway to say what I have to say today.
We do appreciate very much the opportunity to give the views of the employees in the trenches that's trying to do a job and protect the American consumer as defined by the law.
While these hearings kind of take the framework almost of a trial, we're not here to blame anybody or try anybody unless it is the Federal Government which we consider to be on trial today. We do have an obligation to protect the consumer.
Senator Bumpers and I think Senator Pryor also in some of their statements with what previous witnesses said, held that we should be concerning ourselves with all food stuffs going to the American consumer, and that's right. We do not just focus on the chicken industry and we do not say that there are not an awful lot of good producers out there. There are. So it's really the role of Government that's at stake.
I was very interested in the preliminary report from GAO when they stated in answer to the question of how do we evaluate how well the inspectors are doing their job, that the agency has no real criteria, they have no standards and they really have no evaluation system. It's purely subjective.
I would suggest to this Committee because of your broad jurisdiction that this is true of all the performance evaluation system throughout government, and that is one of our problems.
In general, Mr. Chairman, Federal employees have tried to continue doing the job no matter what the agency, and you just see here one example of a problem we face today with the mentality of cut, cut, cut and save, save, save.
We have reduced many agencies of Government to the point that they are not able to do their job, and you can talk about the 127,000 notices to Social Security dependents that went way beyond the legal deadlines because there wasn't enough people to do it, or you can talk about our inability to secure our borders because of the lack of people, or you can talk about a situation where the mining industry is now suing the Government for not protecting them and enforcing their standards because they are getting sued because we've reduced the numbers of mine inspectors to the point that we can't do our job, plus we don't have the standards.
In this particular situation I was amazed to listen to the testimony of Dr. Houston as he went through his elaborate proposal for housewives to protect themselves, putting on gloves sterilizing the instruments and making sure you don't put the cooked meat back on the plate that you had the raw meat on.
Mr. Chairman, we're not talking about decontaminating Three Mile Island. We're talking about cooking chicken in the kitchens around the world and in this country.
You talk about morale, and I can tell you we represent the workers and have for years, and I've been involved in this process for years and years with these guys. Their complaint has been, one, we don't have the standards and, two, we don't get the support.
We are not here to advocate that we maintain the old current system of inspection. There have been many changes in technology in the processing plants. We now process 24 billion pounds, if you want to talk just about chicken, of chicken. You can talk about the other meats, too, Senator, and you're dead right. You talked about the seafood industry, and why doesn't Government have some standards in that industry. It's not just salmonella coming from chickens, you're right.
Absent good standards and absent this agency of Government doing something about these changes as they come along, and the advent of chemical contamination in the feed processes in coming from pesticides through food chain, we've done nothing about that. Everybody talks about problems and nobody over the 15 years I've been involved in it has come up with any solution.
And I say it's the government's role to come up with some solutions and our guys will carry out that process once you, once the agency comes up with the solution. It's a very exasperating situation that our guys find themselves in out there as they try, as I said, to protect the American public.
If you look at the law itself you have very specific criteria, but when you look at the interpretation of the law, as I guess a statement that Dr. Houston made recently in other testimony. He pointed out criteria that the law doesn't address at all. He said, first, public protection through the food chain is a primary objective of the agency, but then he says the allocation of inspectors and resources should be based on the risk to the public, and we don't know what that means. Does that mean that a level of 50,000 citi
zens getting sick a year is an acceptable risk? I don't know what that means.
In decreasing risk to the public an inspection has to take full advantage of the available production and scientific technologies to promote industrial productivity and inspection. Now we know we've got to have a health industry out there. One, we need the food and, two, people need the jobs. So there is no question on that. But there is nothing in this law that says the primary objective of this agency is to promote the industry. Yet, that is what has driven the actions that have occurred over the years.
Let me just run you through a little example, and this happened, by the way, back in a Democratic Administration, Senator. During the Carter years tremendous changes were made, and if you want to talk about chicken, we'll talk just about chicken plants. Tremendous changes were made. And remember along about this time is coming the advent of chemical problems, microbic problems, bacterial problems.
But in those years we went from a process where if the inspectors found a diseased or contaminated bird, they threw it away. We went to the process that then if we got fecal contamination we'll say on the meat, we cut it off and let it go. Well, that wasn't too bad, and at that time we almost doubled the speed of the line.
We didn't get any more inspectors. In fact, today we're operating with about 1,200 to 1,500 fewer inspectors than we had in the initial days. So we speeded up the line and we went to cutting off the contaminated portion of the meat.
Then we said well, that's not working too well. We've got to speed these lines up a little bit more. So we speeded the lines up a little bit more and we went to a bath process. In this process of speeding up the line you've got to remember you also speed up this mechanical gutting machine, and it busts the guts, in very simple terms. So you get more contaminated birds. Now we bathe that sucker as it goes down the line, and thousands of them are going through the same bath. We're cross-contaminating.
Now during this whole procedure, Senator, we did not make one change in the inspection process that was trying to address the problems of new contaminations, of new diseases, of chemicals. We only made changes to accommodate speeding up the lines and productivity. So I ask you what is the agency doing to address the new problems?
Now we talk a lot about the Academy's report, a very scientific report and it basically goes down the same line that we've gone down in the area of occupational safety and health where if you can't scientifically link a person's illness to an agent somewhere at a work site, then you can litigate it for years. You can't prove he died from it, and that's what we're doing with the scientific argument. I would say to you that is not the argument.
I would say the argument is what are we doing to address these new problems, and I would say that is Government's role.
You look at the agency itself, and let's just talk a little bit about the administration of the agency, and we've seen this agency, and I can talk to you about any agency you want to talk about, and you know that. We have seen this agency gradually change. We talked about having a thousand fewer inspectors out there. Well, Senator,
I would hope this Subcommittee will ask the agency to provide the information that shows you what the shift has been from on-theline troops to administrative and overhead troops. It's taken a dramatic switch to administrative costs and overhead costs.
Look at the numbers of veterinarians you now have in this agency that are miles away from any plant. Look at the grade creep in the higher levels, but look at what's happening with the inspector on the line. And you will find if you'll get the agency to provide you, and I'm more specific in the testimony and I'm just summarizing the points we make as I go through, but you will find there has been a tremendous change by this agency of Government to increasing the cost of that agency. Although they like to talk about holding costs down, but a large percentage of their costs is now going to administrative overhead and not to on-line troops. They are disregarding what the on-line troops are doing.
Now we don't play in the game that "You're trying to protect jobs." You're going to need people out there in those plants because while you may have three good plants, you're going to find one bad one. The role of government is to make sure the bad one doesn't pass the contaminated diseased meat through the process, and if it bears a stamp, USDA Inspected, that tells the housewives of America that is a safe piece of meat to eat and fix for her family.
Now if you want to turn it over to the plants, then give the plants the stamps, and that's happening now, by the way, but it still says it's USDA Inspected, but let the stamp then say this plant has inspected this meat and guarantees that it is equal to Government standards. But don't put that Government brand on there that the Government has inspected it unless they have. I think you have a responsibility to make sure that happens.
My guys will do the job. If there is a new process they need to do, if they need to start taking samples of some kind, fine, but the salmonella thing is not an answer. Sampling is not the total answer there. Let's be real about that. You take the sample and it takes you about four days to run that through the lab and find out whether that bird really had contamination or whether it really did have the salmonella or not. You can't hold the line up, or you can't hold that bird four days and then make sure it's identified so out of the millions of them it's piled up in a freezer somewhere so you can go back and pick them out. That's not the thing.
But we know that most of the contamination does come-does come from the fecal contamination in the process. So we can sure see that and we can sure make sure the industry has a process that is complying with the standards to reduce the risk and reduce the hazard.
Mr. Chairman, I'm going to just wind up right quick with a summary of some things we think ought to happen.
One, we think the inspection process should be run and controlled by the Federal Government free from direct industry influence, and we have seen a tremendous amount of industry influence, not just in this area.
I would say to you, and I'm glad to see GAO is finally looking into the inspection processes of Government, all of them, that Challenger would never have occurred had we had the right Government inspection process there. You now have about 90 Federal in
spectors in that whole system. We've turned the inspection over to the contractors.
You would not be buying tanks that don't work and airplanes that don't fly and guns that won't shoot if we had our own inspectors in there holding the manufacturers to standards. We gradually are turning those over to all of the contractors and there are a lot of good ones out there, but the bad ones sure take the public for a ride, and that's what happens in this case.
The Government should have an onsite effective presence in all plants involving the production of meat and poultry products. Now what that presence finally looks like, we don't know, but for God's sake let's start coming with some answers. The answer is not just to take them out of there. That's for sure.
Industry productivity improvements should be forced to adhere to any inspection process constrains which are necessary to protect the consumer, and I use as an example when they speeded up the lines they also had to speed up the mechanical gutting machine, and that's causing more contamination. That's just one example.
The Australian system, by the way, uses a system of manpower allocation based on the poundage in the output of the plants. We use a system of Gramm-Rudman. We say cut out the dollars at the top and cut the people off and then let it float out there in the trenches however it will. That's what's happening whether you're talking about only one and a half employees to treat veterans in our hospitals today when State standards require five and a half, by the way, Senator. Our VA hospitals would not meet State standards if you had to get accredited out there, and again I just go to the process we use for making governmental decisions.
The agency resource should be concentrated in the front-line troops, the inspectors. That is where the work is to be done and that's where we ought to have the majority of our work force. Out there actually doing the work and not sitting back in some ivory tower making decisions and writing up testimony that just skirts the problem.
The front line inspectors should be empowered with strong authority and given support by agency management to exercise the authority, and these inspectors can tell you horror story after horror story after horror story of finding problems and all it takes from the plant manager is a call to the supervisor and the supervisor will override him. There is a fear factor among this group.
I met with about 150 of them about four weeks ago and talked about the whole problem. They took an hour and a half of time and they just kept coming back, well, what can the union do if we really reveal this problem out there? What can the union do to protect us because we know we're going to lose our jobs and we know we're not going to get promoted and we know we're going to get transferred where we have to move 200 miles. We get on the list if we really hold the line in our role, which the law says we're supposed to do.
This agency does not stand behind these inspectors out there, Senator, and that needs to be dealt with.
New and approved inspection procedures should be additions to the onsite inspection process and not used as an excuse to replace or weaken the process.