USDA's Implementation of New State-Delegated Meat Inspection Program Addresses Most Key Farm Bill Requirements, but Additional Action Needed

GAO-13-332R: Published: May 30, 2013. Publicly Released: Jun 3, 2013.

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What GAO Found

USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) completed most of the key activities outlined in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (the 2008 Farm Bill), which authorized a new meat and poultry inspection program to support interstate shipment of meat and poultry products from establishments with 25 or fewer employees, inspected by state agencies. Specifically, FSIS issued program regulations in May 2011for the new inspection program, called the Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) program,and it provided additional guidance in October 2011 instructing states on what they needed to demonstrate to be approved for the CIS program.As of January 31, 2013, three states—Ohio, North Dakota, and Wisconsin—and eight establishments in two of those states had been selected to participate in the program. However, although FSIS established a technical assistance division, that division has not coordinated with other USDA agencies on initiatives to provide outreach, education, and training to establishments and grants to states for those initiatives and also for technical assistance to small establishments,as required by the 2008 Farm Bill. Also, FSIS gave funds to four states to assess the changes they would have to make to their inspection procedures to meet the 2008 Farm Bill requirements for CIS, and to serve as models for other states that might be interested in the new program, but FSIS did not collect information from the four states. FSIS acknowledged that the information could be useful to other states that may be considering CIS but it does not plan to provide funds to other states for similar assessments.

The inspection and oversight standards for establishments in the existing inspection programs in which states conduct inspections for interstate shipment and state inspectors convey federal marks of inspection differ from those for establishments in the CIS program. The 2008 Farm Bill requires the federal coordinator for each state to visit CIS establishments with a frequency that is appropriate to ensure that those establishments are operating in a manner that is consistent with federal meat and poultry inspection laws, and to submit a quarterly food safety compliance report on each establishment. According to CIS program regulations, the frequency of these visits will be based on factors that include the complexity of the operations conducted, an establishment's schedule of operations, and the establishment's performance under the program. FSIS officials said the agency intends these visits to be conducted at least once every 3 months and to submit quarterly food safety compliance reports on each establishment. In contrast, under the existing inspection programs in which states conduct inspections for interstate shipment, FSIS inspects establishments and issues a compliance report about once every 4 years. The officials were not able to explain why FSIS has such different requirements for frequency of oversight visits and compliance reporting for establishments in programs that all use state inspectors to convey federal marks of inspection. Finally, under the CIS program and the existing programs in which states conduct inspections and convey federal marks, inspections must be identical to federal inspections, including legal authorities, inspector training, computer systems, and laboratory protocols, among others. However, the fiscal year 2013 cooperative agreements with states specify a lesser standard, which is not consistent with the requirements for federal marks of inspectionand could also create confusion for the state inspectors who conduct both inspections that convey federal marks and inspections that convey state marks.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (the 2008 Farm Bill), mandated GAO conduct an audit to determine the effectiveness of USDA’s implementation of a new state-delegated meat and poultry inspection program.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making recommendations to help small establishments and states that may be interested in the CIS program obtain information for their decision and to promote more consistency between the CIS and existing inspection programs in which state inspectors convey federal marks of inspection. USDA agreed with these recommendations.

For more information contact Daniel Garcia-Diaz at (202) 512-3841 or garciadiazd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FSIS has taken steps to coordinate with other USDA agencies on initiatives to provide outreach, education, and training to small establishments and grants to states for such activities. For example, in 2014, USDA developed a toolkit describing various USDA agencies' services and grants for small establishments. In addition, FSIS newsletters in 2014 and 2015 included information about the program and about Agriculture Marketing Service grants and services useful to small establishments. In 2016 FSIS posted information on its web site about the program and about other USDA agencies' (Rural Development and Agriculture Marketing Service) grants, loans, and services for small establishments. FSIS officials told us in July 2016 that these actions required coordination with other USDA agencies. This fulfills the intent of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to ensure that small establishments have information about the CIS program, require the technical assistance division to coordinate with other USDA agencies on initiatives to provide outreach, education, and training to small establishments and grants to states for outreach, education, training, and technical assistance to such establishments, as described in the 2008 Farm Bill.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FSIS has taken steps to inform and assist states that may be interested in the CIS program for small establishments in their states, and to work with the four states that received funding under agreements with FSIS in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, to collect information that could be shared with other states. For example, in June 2013, FSIS held its monthly webinar with state meat and poultry inspection directors and invited the state directors of the four states involved with the Cooperative Interstate Shipment program to discuss their status with the program and to let other states know what was working and what could be improved in the process. Also, in 2016 FSIS developed a web site for the program that included a video with an example of state participation from Wisconsin's Meat Safety and Inspection Bureau and a plant owner from the state who participated in the CIS program. This fulfills the intent of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to inform and assist states that may be interested in the CIS program for small establishments in their states, work with the four states that received funding under agreements with FSIS in fiscal years 2011 and 2012 to collect information that could be shared with other states.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2016, FSIS informed GAO that the agency has not reexamined the federal oversight requirements for these programs, but it is working toward responding to the recommendation. While doing so, FSIS continues to provide information to the states and personnel covering these establishments. For example, FSIS officials told us they continue to keep states aware of new FSIS policies and initiatives through monthly Webinars. FSIS officials also told us the agency coordinates with state personnel who cover Talmadge-Aiken establishments (where state inspectors conduct federal inspections and convey federal marks of inspection) to ensure they receive the required training by the FSIS Center for Learning staff.

    Recommendation: To promote more consistency between the CIS and existing inspection programs in which state inspectors convey federal marks of inspection, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to reexamine the federal oversight requirements for these programs and consider whether more similar requirements, such as frequency of visits to establishments and compliance reporting by inspectors, would be beneficial and, if so, modify the requirements accordingly.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2016, FSIS officials told GAO they are still working to implement this recommendation and have established a workgroup to update the Talmadge-Aiken agreements (where state inspectors conduct federal inspections and convey federal marks of inspection) to accurately reflect federal law.

    Recommendation: To promote more consistency between the CIS and existing inspection programs in which state inspectors convey federal marks of inspection, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of FSIS to require that future cooperative agreements with states for the existing inspection programs stipulate the "same as" standard.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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