A possible shortage of federal meat inspectors for beef, pork, and chicken packing houses could be addressed by a group of similar professionals: state inspectors.

When asked by Agri-Pulse if the agency was conducting outreach with state officials on the matter, a spokesperson for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said “FSIS has existing cooperative agreements in place with Meat and Poultry Inspection (MPI) programs in several states. Both FSIS and state MPI programs will continue to work together to ensure the nation’s meat and poultry supply is safe, wholesome, and properly labeled.”

“FSIS is prepared to be operationally nimble and to use all administrative means and flexibilities available to protect the health and safety of employees based on local public health recommendations,” the spokesperson added. “Planning for absenteeism is a part of normal FSIS operations. FSIS has a plan and authority to address staffing considerations and is prepared to act accordingly.”

Paula Schelling — president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 45, which represents more than 6,500 food inspectors nationwide — told Agri-Pulse she had “heard the rumblings” about the potential usage of state inspectors to backfill gaps in the FSIS workforce, but "I have yet to have a confirmation that that is going to occur."

While there have yet to be facilities shut down due to illness among inspectors, several plants have ceased operations amid the outbreak, including this week’s suspension of Tyson’s Columbus Junction, Iowa, pork plant due to more than two dozen cases of COVID-19 and in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, Empire Kosher Poultry suspended operations until April 13 after two plant employees tested positive for COVID-19. Plants cannot operate without the presence of an inspector.

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