STEVE GOLDSCHMIDT, assistant editor of "Food Chemical News," is suing the USDA for release of records which show "severe deficiencies" in some meat slaughtering and processing operations.
Food Chemical News is an independent newsletter that reports on the regulation of food (labeling, standards, contaminants etc.). Goldschmidt requested copies of reports made by reviewers responsible for "oversight monitoring" of the USDA meat inspection process. Goldschmidt believes he's entitled to the reports under the Freedom of Information Act. The USDA denied his request because "the release of the information could impede an investigation" of the plants named in the report, according to USDA director of policy and programming John McCutcheon.
The reports are submitted by a 22-member review team, part of the Review and Evaluation Staff of the USDA. These "review officers" check the effectiveness of the 7,800 meat inspectors responsible for assuring that 9,000 meat plants nationwide maintain safe and wholesome standards. The officers itemize deficiencies in such things as sanitation, meat handling, equipment, labeling and other points of meat processing. The reports go to the circuit supervisors in charge of maintaining quality inspection at the plants and other USDA officials.
Many times, these deficiencies are summarized; that is, all information about a circuit -- made up of 25 to 50 plants -- is compiled and generalized to reflect overall weak points in the circuit as a whole. The point, says Carol Seymour, director of the Review and Evaluation Staff, is to identify and correct weaknesses in the entire circuit.
Occasionally, she says, when the review officer sees "really serious problems" he will issue a separate report "that lays out any deficiencies we have seen." He'll attach this specific report to the overall summary and pass it along along to people responsible for corrections. And if transgressions go uncorrected, the plants with "serious" problems may have some formal action taken against them by the USDA. The department could, for example, refuse to inspect the plant, which means the plant would have to close up shop.
In the past, the public had access to the reports which itemized specific problems. If a reviewer found a chicken packer putting too much water in his chicken (the bird absorbs water when it is dunked in water to chill), he wrote it down and See MEATS, D6, Col. 1 MEAT PROCESSING ----- MEATS, From D1 filed it with the USDA. These files were open to anyone.
They were, in fact, open to Lynn O'Shaughnessy, a reporter from the Kansas City Times who, on May 10, began a series on meat inspection with stories such as "Meatpacking industry would like to chain up the watchdog," which explained that the meat industry suggested to the Reagan administrion that this review team was an unnecessary expenditure for the USDA.
On July 16, a memo circulated by the acting deputy administrator of the USDA's Meat and Poultry Inspection Operations explained changes in the way these reports would be handled. The memo stated that a circuit supervisor, who gets a copy of the review, would be responsible for immediate corrections or a long-term plan of action. If the plant corrected the deficiencies, the report would enter the public domain. As long as action was pending, or--in the case of unresolved problems--as long as the USDA began some formal enforcement proceedings, the public would have no access to the reports.
"The central issue is disclosure and the fact that the government business should be the public's business," says Goldschmidt. "The public should know the results of a government inspection program and the government shouldn't be involved in withholding that information."
The public, says Don Houston, administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, has "access to all the summary reports and has access to the inspection location reports after the files . . . after the investigations are done."
Houston says that before the specific reports listing signficant problems reach public domain, he wants the regional directors to investigate, and Houston wants to learn what causes the problems and what corrections were made. After that, he says, the information is open to public inspection.
Last year, Houston says, "those reports were going out as raw data, without any background on them as to their significance . . . and nothing as to what corrective action was taken."
"I want the problem put into context . . . I want the press to get that information as a total package," he added.
"Data gathered under a taxpayer-supported inspection program which has clear public health significance," says Goldschmidt, "should be made available to the public. It's a matter of the government's business being on the public record."