Slaughterhouse workers watch every move of federal inspectors. They know when they take bathroom breaks. They use the radio to alert one another to the inspector's every step. They even assign the pretty talkative woman to work next to the inspector to distract him from his mission to safeguard the nation's food supply.
That cat-and-mouse game is portrayed by past and current inspectors, lawmakers and an audit report that say the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service is easy to bypass and was failing to screen potentially sick cattle long before this week's beef recall, the largest in U.S. history.
A 2006 audit reviewed 12 slaughterhouses and showed that, despite federal regulations banning all cattle that cannot walk from the human food supply, 29 so-called downer animals were slaughtered. Of those, 20 had no documented physical injury that would demonstrate that they were not diseased, according to the report by the USDA's office of inspector general.
"Should serious animal diseases be detected in the United States, USDA's ability to quickly determine and trace the source of infections to prevent the spread of the disease could be impaired," the audit report says.
Shortcomings in the system have come under harsh light in the wake of the recall of 143 million pounds of beef from a Chino slaughterhouse, where an undercover investigator for the Humane Society of the United States chronicled downer cattle being forced into the slaughter line.
Authorities said the health risk for the public was minimal and that most of the recalled meat may already have been consumed.
The federal Government Accountability Office launched investigations Tuesday into the USDA's oversight of food purchased for federal programs, including school lunches, after numerous lawmakers expressed outrage that weak dairy cattle were slaughtered at Hallmark/Westland, a major supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program.
One USDA inspector, who asked not to be named because he is employed by the Inspection Service, said the agency did not have the adequate staff and resources to enforce multiple regulations on meat production given workers' efforts to dodge oversight.
"They know where I'm at. if I'm headed to the plant, they've got the radios to say, 'This guy's headed out to the pens,' " he said.
Slaughterhouse employees often struck up conversations with inspectors to keep them from going to parts of the plant where workers were doing something against regulation, the inspector said. At Hallmark/Westland, five on-site inspectors oversaw around 100 employees.
But with limited staff, monitoring the workers' treatment of animals often took a back seat to inspecting the carcasses of cattle after slaughter.
"If you look on paper, [the inspections are] getting done, but we're not given the ability to do the zero-tolerance audits," said the inspector, who has worked for the USDA for more than 15 years.
At one point last year, seven of the 24 inspection positions at a large Midwestern slaughterhouse were vacant, said the inspector, adding that staff shortages began about three years ago. With the limited number of personnel, inspectors are routinely outwitted by slaughterhouse workers, he said.
Last year, 9% of inspector positions nationwide were vacant, according to Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the USDA's inspection service. In the district that includes Hallmark/Westland Meat, the average vacancy rate was 12%, said Stan Painter, president of the inspector's union. Eamich said that the vacancy rate is low compared with previous years and that the agency is recruiting aggressively to fill the vacancies.
Slaughterhouses have three types of federal inspectors: veterinarians, slaughter-line inspectors and floor inspectors. Veterinarians screen the cattle for animals unfit for slaughter. Slaughter-line inspectors observe the dead carcasses for signs of disease and remove such high-risk materials as the brain and spinal cord, which can lead to contamination from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Floor inspectors monitor humane handling and ensure that the practices shown in the Humane Society video, such as ramming into a cow with a fork lift, don't occur.
But when staffing levels run low, floor inspectors are often pulled off their jobs to monitor the slaughter line, leaving the pen areas unguarded.
"If I'm tied on the slaughter line, the company can basically run amok," the inspector said.
Dean Cliver, a food safety expert and advisor to the USDA, said authorities need to rethink how meat inspections are conducted.
"Both laws and regulations are predicated on an adversarial 'gotcha' relationship," said Cliver, professor emeritus of food safety at UC Davis. "Some kind of a teaching relationship is what you need. You ought to be doing a better job of explaining what is wrong and how to do it right."