WASHINGTON, D. C. - A veterinarians' group is warning American consumers that the food supply could be in danger because of a growing shortage of federal meat and poultry inspectors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has hundreds of job openings for veterinarians who serve as inspectors in the country's slaughterhouses, and the agency might not have enough money in the next budget to fill those positions.
Former USDA inspector Michael Gilsdorf, spokesman for the National Association of Federal Veterinarians and the group's former CEO, said the agency's overall vacancy rate is 12 percent, but is much higher in some regions. "It's a chronic problem, but it's worse right now," Gilsdorf said. "They've had a problem for the last five years with a shortage, but it's never been this bad. In fact, it was last month when we were told that three of the districts had over a 20 percent vacancy rate."
Veterinarians with the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) inspect beef, pork and poultry products at slaughterhouses and processing centers for potentially deadly pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria. According to Gilsdorf, the shortage puts public health, as well as the economic health of the meat-processing industry, at risk. He believes the Trump administration's failure to fill key FSIS management positions is part of the reason there are too few veterinarians to inspect the food supply.
"They've got what I would call an 'artificial personnel ceiling' because of the budget," he said. "And so, they can only hire so many people - and they've already reached their limit, even though they have this huge vacancy."
Gilsdorf also described the USDA as being at a competitive disadvantage in terms of hiring, because of low salaries and the lack of specialty pay for veterinarians. "Basically, they're not competitive in the veterinary market," Gilsdorf explained. "Only about 3 percent or less of the veterinarians who graduate are interested in public practice. Most of them are interested in going into small-animal, companion-animal medicine."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a significant increase in food-borne illnesses between 2011 and 2016. Gilsdorf said he hopes Congress will approve an increase in next year's budget to bring the inspection service up to full staff.