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From: TSS ()
Subject: Feds probing claims of mad cow violations (USDA ACCUSED OF TRYING TO SILENCE WHISTLEBLOWERS)
Date: May 6, 2005 at 1:17 pm PST

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Feds probing claims of mad cow violations (USDA ACCUSED OF TRYING TO SILENCE WHISTLEBLOWERS)
Date: Fri, 06 May 2005 15:22:57 -0500
From: "Terry S. Singeltary Sr."
To: BSE-L , CJDVOICE


Feds probing claims of mad cow violations


By Steve Mitchell
UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL

Washington, DC, May. 6 (UPI) -- Investigators with the U.S. Department
of Agriculture's Inspector General's office are looking into allegations
that cow brains and other risky materials that could carry mad cow
disease might be entering the human food supply in violation of agency
policy, United Press International has learned.

Stanley Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food
Inspection Locals, told UPI he was interviewed by the USDA's Office of
Inspector General for four hours on March 9 regarding allegations he
raised last December about a breach of mad-cow safeguards.

The National Joint Council is the union representing federal meat
inspectors.

Another involved party who requested anonymity also told UPI about being
interviewed by OIG agents recently.

Painter said he had been informed other USDA meat inspectors were aware
of cases where employees of meatpacking plants failed to ensure
specified risk materials or SRMs -- such as brains and spinal cords --
from cows over 30 months old did not enter the nation's food supply.

SRMs from older cows are considered most risky for transmitting mad cow
pathogens to people. The USDA banned the materials in the wake of the
first U.S. case of mad cow in 2003. The action was taken to safeguard
the public should more cases of the deadly disease appeare in the United
States.

Painter said he worries that if the banned cow parts enter the human
food supply, they could endanger consumers. Humans can contract a fatal
brain-wasting illness known as variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease from
eating beef products contaminated with the mad cow pathogen -- also
called bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE.

"My concerns were two-fold," Painter said. "SRMs entering the food chain
and the USDA policy isn't adequate enough to prevent SRMs from entering
the food chain.

He added he is troubled by what he termed "the agency's unwillingness to
do anything about it."

Consumer groups also have raised alarm about the alleged violations.

"We're very concerned," Tony Corbo, legislative representative of Public
Citizen, told UPI. "The whole food safety system is in jeopardy here."

The OIG would not comment on the matter. Paul Feeney, OIG's deputy
counsel, said the agency was looking into whether the USDA was
effectively enforcing its ban on SRMs in meat products, but would not
discuss the status of the Painter issue.

USDA spokesman Steven Cohen said the agency looked into Painter's claims
and found nothing to substantiate them.

"We conducted a very exhaustive investigation to determine if any of
those things could be true, (and) found no indication BSE regulations
are not being effectively enforced," Cohen told UPI.

That statement conflicts with what others have said, however.

Felicia Nestor, a consultant to Public Citizen, told UPI she has seen
internal USDA documents that support Painter's allegations. Nestor said
she is aware of other evidence that such violations could be occurring
in at least four states, some of which may be found in USDA's
non-compliance reports. USDA inspectors file such reports when they
observe a meat-packing plant in violation of a rule or policy.

Nestor added that last January, she attended a meeting at which two USDA
officials -- Merle Pierson, acting undersecretary for food safety, and
Barbara Masters, acting administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection
Service -- told consumer groups they were aware of both violations in
the SRM policy and records noting the problems in the agency's database.

Corbo, who also attending the meeting, corroborated that account, and
added that Public Citizen had requested the non-compliance reports from
the USDA via the Freedom of Information Act in January, but so far the
agency has not responded, despite a federal law requiring it to act
within 30 days.

Painter said OIG investigators told him in March they did not have the
non-compliance reports and also were having difficulty obtaining them.

Feeney did not respond to UPI's question whether USDA had resisted
providing access to non-compliance reports. He said David Gray, another
OIG employee, would answer those questions but Gray did not respond to
UPI's phone call.

Asked if USDA had looked through its non-compliance database to
determine if any existed that support Painter's allegations, Cohen said:
"Nobody is saying there haven't been non-compliance reports written.
There are no enforcement reports that support the claim that inspectors
are being intimidated from noting non-compliance or that export
requirements are being violated."

Regarding claims the agency had resisted providing non-compliance
reports to OIG, Cohen said, "When OIG asks for data ... we provide what
they ask for."

Although Painter's allegations first surfaced in the media in December,
the OIG did not look into his claims until Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.,
urged the agency to do so during a hearing before the House
Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture last February.

By that time, Painter had been charged with personal misconduct by the
USDA. In response, 19 consumer groups, including Public Citizen, wrote
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns accusing the USDA of violating the
Whistleblower Protection Act and launching "apparent retaliation"
efforts against Painter.

"The concern was that ... instead of looking into those issues of
safety, they looked into Painter himself," an aide to Hinchey told UPI.
Hinchey "thought that was totally inappropriate," the aide said.

OIG officials have informed Hinchey's office they interviewed Painter
and also are investigating how the USDA handled his complaints, the aide
said, and added Hinchey plans to follow up on this matter.

Painter accused the USDA management of trying to silence whistleblowers.

"The agency's philosophy is, 'you should keep your mouth shut and you
shouldn't report those things' -- see no evil, hear no evil, speak no
evil," he said. "Instead of trying to address the problem, they
immediately try to downplay it and try to make the person reporting it
not seem credible."

The USDA has denied it retaliated against Painter.

"He wrote a letter making certain allegations and he was asked about
those specific allegations and he was represented by counsel at all
times," Cohen said.

Painter initially voiced his concerns in December in a letter addressed
to William Smith, assistant administrator for field operations at USDA's
Food Safety and Inspection Service. He wrote the union was concerned
because plant employees were not properly identifying carcasses of cows
over 30 months old and therefore the SRMs were not being removed "and
these high risk materials are entering the food supply."

In addition, Painter wrote, USDA inspectors were aware of instances in
which Mexico's anti-BSE export requirements were being violated. Mexico
banned kidneys from cows over 30 months of age, but in some instances
these were being processed by U.S. plants preparing products shipped to
Mexico.

Painter wrote that the union thought inspectors should be instructed to
double-check the work of plant employees to ensure cows over 30 months
of age were appropriately identified. The union also wanted the USDA to
grant inspectors the authority to enforce Mexico's export requirements.

Smith did not respond, Painter said, so he released his letter to the
media. A few days after the media reports, he said, a USDA official
visited his home while he was on Christmas vacation and asked him why he
sent the letter and for the names of the other inspectors involved.

Three days after Christmas, the USDA charged Painter with personal
misconduct for not divulging the names of the inspectors or the
meat-packing plants involved. Painter responded he could not provide
that information because he did not know it. He said he was
intentionally kept ignorant of the names because he suspected the agency
would attempt to retaliate against those who spoke out.

In January Painter was brought to the USDA's headquarters in Washington,
where he said he was "interrogated" for three hours. Painter said it
seemed like the USDA officials who questioned him wanted to intimidate
those who had voiced concerns, rather than determine if there was a
problem with their mad-cow policy.

"They never asked 'Where did this happen and how can we fix it?'" he
said. "All they asked about was the names of inspectors who told me
this, so they could go and crack down on them so this wouldn't happen
again."

The next week, the USDA brought the presidents of the seven regional
councils of the inspectors union to agency headquarters. Painter said
his attorney -- who also represented the seven regional presidents --
told him they were asked questions about their communications with him
and nothing about the alleged BSE violations.

USDA officials were "asking them how often did they talk to Painter, did
you talk to him the weekend before he wrote the letter, trying to get
internal information from us. None of that had anything to do with BSE,"
he said.

The department brought Painter in for second interview Jan. 18. He said
the agency made a last-minute switch in the location -- from Alabama to
Arkansas -- that prevented his regular attorney from being present.
Instead, he was represented by a lawyer who was unfamiliar with the case
and who Painter had met for the first time just before the questioning.

Painter said the agency officials asked him questions that suggested
they did not understand USDA policies and implied he should have handled
the reports of alleged violations by doing things that would have been a
breach of official agency procedures.

"The people who developed these questions for me had no idea what was
going on. How can they judge me as being wrong when they don't know what
they're talking about?" he said.

Painter said he estimates the agency so far has spent $12,000
investigating him.

"Why didn't they spend that researching issues and changing policy to
protect the consumer?" he asked. "They felt it was easier to go out
after me rather than make a policy change."

Painter said the violations continue to happen and noted he just
recently learned of another one.

"The potential is there for it to happen all across the country," he
said. "It's not just in one location, it's not isolated, because the
policy is the same nationwide."

--

Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

http://www.washtimes.com/upi-breaking/20050506-100950-7181r.htm

TSS





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