WASHINGTON—The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors, today issued a warning about a proposed agency plan that could threaten the safety of the U.S. food supply. Union representatives asserted that they are still being told by USDA officials of plans to furlough inspectors soon, despite public statements of denial from the agency. Union officials said the furlough would result in USDA performing fewer inspections at every food processing and manufacturing facility throughout the nation.
“This misconceived plan will take inspectors out of every kind of food processing and manufacturing facility across the country,” said Stan Painter, chairman of AFGE’s National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, which represents USDA inspectors nationwide. “This plan amounts to a food safety roulette. Americans will be gambling with their health, and in some cases their lives, because they won’t know if the food they eat has been inspected and approved by USDA.”
According to union officials, USDA has announced that it will furlough inspectors for a period of one to five days starting this week and continuing through October. On any given day some inspectors will be selected for furlough and instructed not to report to work, creating gaps in the inspection program. The furlough will impact meat and poultry inspectors, egg inspectors, and USDA inspectors who oversee the production of processed foods. The stated goal of the program is to save $26 million.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, it is estimated that 76 million Americans are sickened by foodborne pathogens (e.g. Salmonella and E. coli) each year, with 325,000 ending up hospitalized and 5,000 dying. However, the actual number of deaths due to food poisoning may be significantly higher. A study by the prestigious Statens Serum Institut in Denmark examined more than half a million people over an eight year period and found a higher death rate for up to one year among people who were sickened by Salmonella and Campylobacter. These two types of foodborne pathogens are among the most common to strike the American public.