WASHINGTON — Two federal food inspectors who complained a year ago of unsanitary conditions in many Southern California meatpacking plants have accused U.S. agriculture officials of destroying evidence of widespread health violations turned up by an investigation.
The whistle-blowing inspectors, Eduardo Delgado and Vernice Gee, asked Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng to investigate their charges that Food Safety and Inspection Service officials censored the draft report of an agency review that found major health violations in 127 of 236 Southern California packing plants last year.
In Washington, a department official denied that the draft report had been destroyed deliberately, contending that the inspection service has been open about problems with meat inspection operations based in Long Beach. A new review report issued this week showed improvements, Nancy Robinson said.
She said the missing draft "was not substantially different" from the final report but simply contained some "allegations by individuals."
Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blowers protection organization that prepared the 24-page petition by Delgado and Gee, said the draft showed that witnesses who were interviewed "consistently disclosed evidence of widespread meat contamination."
He said the agency withheld the information to keep from alarming the public.
In the petition, Delgado and Gee told Lyng that a USDA inspector general's report found that the only copy of the critical draft report by the inspection service review team and copies of reports of interviews with witnesses had apparently been destroyed.
They charged that censorship of the final report had been ordered by Lou Gast, then associate director of the inspection service. Gast, who recently retired, told inspector general agents that the draft report "may have been destroyed, but I did not instruct anyone to destroy it."
Delgado and Gee asked Lyng to order the inspector general to reopen the investigation and to determine whether destruction of documents or false statements by witnesses violated civil or criminal laws. They also asked that the draft report--if it still exists--be released and that the public be told which of the 236 plants violated sanitation rules, as well as what corrective action has been taken.
Lyng, who was president of the American Meat Institute before he joined the Reagan Administration in 1981, was also asked to reopen an inquiry into charges by Dr. Carl Telleen, an inspection service veterinarian, that the agency prohibits public disclosure of cases in which contaminated products have received USDA inspection approval.
After the Southern California review last year, Delgado was suspended for a week. The order was reversed when the Government Accountability Project intervened. Gee was assaulted and injured by a packing plant employee. He was reprimanded by the inspection service for his involvement in the incident.