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Federal Meat Inspectors Say USDA Policies on Mad Cow Threaten Public Health

January 26, 2005

Secretary Mike Johanns
United States Department of Agriculture
Room 200-A, Whitten Building
12th Street and Jefferson Drive, S.W.
Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Johanns,

We are writing to express our concern about apparent retaliation against
Charles S. Painter, Chairman of the National Joint Council of Food
Inspection Locals, who recently made disclosures covered by the
Whistleblower Protection Act about the agency¹s rules on bovine spongiform
encephalopathy. Further, we are concerned about the agency¹s decision to
involve seven more union officials in the investigation of Mr. Painter,
rather than use easily accessible agency records to answer their questions
about particular plants where such problems may be occurring.

On December 8, 2004, Mr. Painter sent a letter, on behalf of the NJC, to Mr.
William Smith, Assistant Administrator for Field Operations of the USDA¹s
Food Safety Inspection Service. The letter presented concerns about the
removal of specified risk materials (SRMs) from cattle and FSIS inspectors¹
ability to enforce the export requirements for products destined for Mexico.
Specifically, the letter states that members of the union had reported that:

1. Plant employees are not correctly identifying and marking all
heads and carcasses of animals over 30 months old. Therefore, plant
employees and government personnel further down the line are unaware that
numerous parts should be removed as SRMs and these high risk materials are
entering the food supply.

2. On-line inspectors are not authorized to take actions when
they see plant employees sending products that do not meet export
requirements past the point on the line where they can be identified and
removed.

In his letter, Mr. Painter did not identify specific plants where reports
had come from, because he did not know them. In fact, he chose not to learn
the identity of the plants so that he would not be forced to disclose this
information, which could allow the agency to take retaliatory action against
the inspectors assigned to these plants.

Rather than dealing with the serious problems identified in Mr. Painter¹s
letter, the agency instead directed extraordinary resources to attacking the
NCJ Chairman and other regional union presidents. Specifically, on December
23, an FSIS compliance officer appeared unannounced at the home of Mr.
Painter, while he was on annual leave, to question him about the allegations
in the letter. Mr. Painter explained that the intent of his letter was to
point out problems with overall FSIS policy. In fact, his letter suggests
why the reports from several plants are likely just the tip of the iceberg:

³We are concerned, however, that since on-line Inspectors are
not instructed to perform this examination, most will not do so, therefore
most age determinations will not be reviewed by the government.
Additionally, since so many on-line Inspectors are recent hires, these new
employees will be even less likely to perform this check. Inevitably, the
majority of 30+ animals missed by plant employees will continue down the
line and SRMs will enter the food supply.²

Nevertheless, just a few days later, on December 28, 2004, Mr. Painter
received a notice from FSIS that he was under formal investigation for
failing to disclose the plants and inspectors involved in the incidents
described in his letter. On January 6, 2005, Mr. Painter endured a three
hour interrogation in which he repeatedly stated that he did not know the
identities of particular plants the agency should investigate in addressing
the policy failure addressed in his letter. On January 7, 2005, seven
regional council presidents for the NJC were also ordered to appear in
Washington, D.C. on January 11, 2005, for an interview.

This case presents a classic example of the value and necessity of
whistleblowers. The decision by FSIS officials to attack the messenger and
ignore the message not only fails agency employees who are merely trying to
do their job, but also fails consumers who depend on the agency to
adequately safeguard the meat they feed their families.

Additionally, it is important to note that the NJC raised their concerns in
hopes that the agency would address an inadequate policy which applies to
all cattle slaughter plants. But if in response to this concern about
policy, the agency felt compelled to investigate the performance of
individual plants, it has methods for doing so that do not require harassing
union officials or other employees. The agency¹s options include searching
their database of non-compliance reports or contacting district offices to
inquire about plant performance on these regulations, methods similar to
those used to fulfill FOIA requests and other routine evaluations. Rather
than pursue these methods, the agency chose to spend time and money pursuing
retaliatory investigations of union officials. We are also concerned that,
to date, the agency has not initiated any efforts to address the overall
policy that leaves plant employees in charge of determining the age of
cattle, and instead has chosen to make this an issue of the performance at
specific plants.

Your agency showed disrespect for its own inspectors and violated the public
trust when you repeatedly used the media to imply that the problems
described in Mr. Painter¹s letter were unfounded.[1] <#_ftn1> Further, by
opening a formal investigation of Mr. Painter, the agency is attempting to
restrict the rights of concerned federal employees and citizens to freely
express concerns to the public.

When Congress reauthorized the Whistleblower Protection Act in 1994, it
recognized whistleblowers as the "eyewitnesses in the front lines as public
policy is implemented" and thus mandated that agencies create a climate
where whistleblowers¹ disclosures are encouraged and acted upon. Contrary
to this mandate, Mr. Painter is being illegally investigated and discredited
in the press.

The concerns outlined by Mr. Painter¹s letter are of vital interest to
consumers, especially in light of recent announcements of the discovery of
two more cases of BSE in Canada and the agency¹s intent to re-establish
imports of live animals from Canada. The public has the right to know that
the reality inside meat plants is not the same as the picture being painted
for the media by USDA officials in Washington, D.C.

When FSIS inspectors feel they have no option left other than going public
with their concerns, that should serve as a wakeup call for the agency to
recommit itself to protecting public health, not as an excuse to retaliate
against its own employees. We urge you to reconsider the decision to
initiate a formal misconduct investigation of Mr. Painter, and instead, to
direct agency resources to taking steps necessary to establish an
environment inside FSIS that encourages employees to disclose issues of
waste, fraud, or threats to public health. Consumers deserve no less.

We would appreciate a response to our concerns about this matter. Please
respond to Wenonah Hauter at Public Citizen, (202) 454-5132, 215
Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Washington DC 20003.

Sincerely,

American Corn Growers Association

Cancer Prevention Coalition

Center for Food Safety

Community Nutrition Institute

Consumer Federation of America

Consumer Policy Institute/Consumers Union

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Foundation, Inc.

Family Farm Defenders

Government Accountability Project

Global Resource Action Center for the Environment

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Iowa Farmers Union

Lane County Food Coalition

Organic Consumers Association

Organization for Competitive Markets

Public Citizen

Safe Tables Our Priority

The Humane Society of the United States

Weston A. Price Foundation

[1] <#_ftnref1> For example, agency representatives have been quoted
repeatedly as saying ³Public Health Veterinarians, who are assigned to every
slaughter plant in America, perform ante mortem and postmortem inspection on
every animal.² This is false. Most often, especially in the largest
plants, veterinarians do ante mortem and postmortem inspection only on those
animals which are segregated for veterinarian disposition by FSIS
inspectors.