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Inspector to file charges against USDA

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WASHINGTON, Sep 06, 2005 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- The federal meat inspector who was charged with misconduct by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after he claimed mad cow disease safeguards were being violated at slaughterhouses told United Press International he plans to file charges against the agency.

Stan Painter, a USDA inspector and chair of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, the inspectors union, notified the agency's management in a letter last December he was aware of instances where the riskiest parts of older cows were not being marked or removed from processing.

Painter worried these risky parts -- known as specified risk materials, or SRMs -- could enter the food supply and infect people, causing a fatal brain illness called variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease.

Two cases of mad cow have been detected in U.S. herds, and some suspect there are more. The USDA put the SRM safeguards in place in 2004 to protect the public from mad cow disease -- also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE -- if more cases are detected.

The USDA did not respond to Painter's concerns until he made his letter known to news outlets.

On Dec. 28, 2004, the agency charged Painter with personal misconduct for not revealing the names of the inspectors who told him of the SRM violations. Officials also told him he was under a formal investigation, which was dropped last month after the release of internal documents revealing more than 1,000 violations of the USDA's SRM regulations.

Painter said he thinks the USDA was attempting "to harass and intimidate him (and) to have a chilling effect" on other inspectors.

"I plan to file charges against the agency," he told UPI, adding he has not yet decided if he will go through the legal system, through internal USDA procedures or another avenue.

Asked about Painter's intent to bring charges, agency spokesman Steven Cohen told UPI the documents -- called noncompliance reports, or NRs -- demonstrate "that BSE safeguard regulations are being enforced and prohibited materials did not reach the public."

Mad cow disease remains a sensitive topic for the USDA because it can have significant economic ramifications. The U.S. beef industry lost billions of dollars because more than 60 nations closed their borders in 2003 to American beef after the report of the first detected case in U.S. herds. Japan, formerly the largest importer of American beef, still has not reopened its borders.

For months, USDA officials denied Painter's allegations in media reports, saying they had investigated and found no evidence to substantiate his claims. The NRs released last month under the Freedom of Information Act, however, showed 1,036 violations of SRM regulations in at least 35 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, with some plants being cited repeatedly for infractions. The USDA delayed releasing the documents for eight months despite a federal law mandating a response within 30 days.

Patty Lovera, of the watchdog group Public Citizen, which requested the USDA documents, said some of the violations cited in the NRs are egregious. In one, an employee at a plant in Michigan was not properly marking older cows to have their SRMs removed because he did not have a pencil. In another, an employee in a Missouri plant was loading cow heads onto his pickup truck to take home to feed to his dog.

Lovera charged the USDA with attempting to silence Painter and failing to address problems with the SRM ban.

"Their behavior through this whole thing is appalling," she told UPI. "Stan brought them concerns about a policy and instead of investigating the policy, they investigated him."

Last December, after Painter made his letter known publicly, the USDA sent an officer to Painter's house while he was on leave to question him about the allegations in his letter. Later, USDA officials interrogated Painter twice, asking him for the names of the inspectors who told him about the violations.

Painter said he intentionally was kept ignorant of the inspectors' names because he feared the agency would retaliate against them. Painter also said USDA officials did not need the inspectors' names because they could determine where the infractions were occurring by looking at their database of NRs.

Sometime around June the U.S. Embassy in Japan posted a notice on its Web site stating USDA officials had found no evidence to substantiate Painter's claims and had requested a criminal investigation into his actions. The notice was removed in July after UPI reported its existence.

Although Cohen acknowledged more than 1,000 NRs were written by USDA inspectors, he minimized their significance, saying they "amount to less than one-half of one percent of the total written for all reasons by (USDA) inspection program personnel."

Lovera said any infraction of mad cow safeguards should be of concern, because this disease always is fatal in humans and cooking does not destroy the pathogen.

"You have very little margin of error for something you don't want to get because you can't cook it away and you can't disinfect it," she said.

Painter said his concern now is what the agency will do to fix what he sees as shortcomings in the SRM policy.

"It's a failed policy," he said. "It doesn't protect the consumer."

Cohen did not respond to whether the USDA planned to change the SRM regulations.

The USDA's Office of Inspector General has launched an investigation to determine whether the regulations are being implemented effectively, and results are due out soon.



Copyright 2005 by United Press International.

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