"Meat Cops" Take Brunt of Workplace Violence

The recent killing of three government meat inspectors by the owner of a sausage plant in San Leandro, California was only the most extreme example of an ongoing pattern of abuse.

Compliance officers and other meat inspectors "almost on a daily basis have been pushed around, found all their tires slashed" and at least once "chased with a meat cleaver" by angry plant owners or employees, according to Michael Donovan, president of the Association of Technical and Supervisory Professionals, which represents employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

"This has been going on for eons," Donovan said. "We've put out bulletins saying that threats are not tolerated but we've never prosecuted before."

Compliance officers, or "meat cops," visit a company to investigate recurring violations of USDA regulations.

"Their very presence suggests something is seriously wrong," according to an article in the trade journal Meat & Poultry, for January 1999. The article offered stern advice from Washington D.C. attorney and lobbyist Dennis R. Johnson. "The Food Safety compliance officer is not your friend. He's there to prove and prosecute a violation of the law. Don't volunteer any information."

Major changes in the agency's meat and poultry inspection system have dramatically altered the relationship between government inspectors and companies over the last three years, according to Donovan.

The new system, called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or HACCP, gives companies far greater leeway to determine production methods while providing more severe penalties in the form of recalls and legal action in the event of system failures, especially should consumers fall ill. Under HACCP, the role of inspectors and compliance officers has been significantly altered.

"We never had compliance officers coming into the plants before unless it was a serious problem," Donovan said. "What always happened in the past was the inspector in the plant would retain or reject the meat if there was an unsanitary condition. He would take the action right there."

In-plant meat and poultry inspectors are federal or state employees who work inside slaughtering and processing facilities, examining and observing carcasses and meat products as they are produced. Donovan said that under HACCP, compliance officers call on plant owners more often, carrying the threat of legal action, instead of allowing inspectors to handle infractions as they occur.

A centerpiece of the Hazard Analysis program is that the government will not dictate specific production remedies to companies. "It's gotten more legalistic," Donovan said. "'If you don't comply we will take legal action against you.'"

FSIS officials have no firm figures on cases of abuse, according to Elizabeth Gaston, FSIS chief press officer, and even if they did the figures wouldn't be realistic. "Most inspectors don't even report those because they've got to work with the people," Donovan said.

Beyond that, compliance officers and plant inspectors complain that the agency is unresponsive.

Plant inspectors, being closer than compliance officers to the stresses of loud, high-speed slaughter and processing production, are even more susceptible to threats and acts of violence, say industry veterans. Alvin Sewell, vice president of a union of inspectors responsible for 19 facilities from Orlando, Florida to Macon, Georgia, says inspectors have been beaten, threatened with bodily harm, and interfered with in the performance of their duties by plant managers and employees. One member had his car tires car flattened, was shot at through his windshield and received two separate death threats delivered to his mother.

Sewell said the agency referred the inspector to the FBI, who said they could do nothing without further evidence. The Food Agency did not conduct an investigation or warn plant management, nor did it move the employee to a safer location. The employee's response, Sewell said, was that he would "protect himself." "Now we've got a scared employee who might make a mistake."

Campbell of the FSIS said he was not familiar with that particular case, which took place in 1997.

"The bottom line is this," Sewell concluded. "The industry is not perceiving any kind of accountability. And when the agency fails to take action to firmly address the situation, the employee is left in a hostile work environment." Referring to this and other such situations that he continues to encounter, he asked rhetorically, "Do I think there's gonna be physical violence there? I don't know. I wouldn't rule it out."

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