WASHINGTON, April 23 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture has pressured its veterinarians into falsifying official documents for as long as 20 years, former agency veterinarians told United Press International.
The allegations come as a current USDA veterinarian and an attorney representing federal veterinarians have made similar charges about existing internal practices at the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The veterinarian -- who requested anonymity because of feared repercussions from the agency -- and the attorney, Bill Hughes of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, allege the present FSIS management takes retaliatory actions against veterinarian inspectors who do not obey orders from superiors to sign certificates that falsely assert certain food items are safe for export.
These so-called export certificates declare a food item has been prepared in accordance with the safety inspection requirements of foreign countries. In some cases, Hughes and the veterinarian charge, even though food items may violate those export requirements, veterinarian inspectors still are expected to sign the documents.
Former veterinarians said the practice has been condoned in the agency for up to 20 years.
"We signed export certificates almost daily ... without ever verifying their accuracy," Tom D'Amura, a veterinarian who spent 12 years with the agency before leaving in 2000, told UPI.
"It probably still goes on," D'Amura said, and added he maintains contact with current USDA veterinarians.
Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian who worked for the agency from 1985 to 1995, said falsification of export certificates "has been ongoing for 20 years."
USDA spokesman Steven Cohen told UPI the FSIS was not aware of any current problems with its export certification process and "would launch an investigation" if it learned about management pressuring veterinarians to sign false documents.
Hughes currently is representing two agency veterinarians who were suspended for two weeks without pay when they balked at signing certificates they thought was inaccurate.
In one case, a veterinarian had cited a firm for infractions on two different days when employees were preparing poultry products for export to Russia. Because the infractions were specific violations of Russia's inspection requirements, the veterinarian refused to sign the export certificates for the poultry products processed during those two days.
Plant employees complained and the veterinarian's immediate supervisor and district manager ordered her to sign the export certificate. She again refused and ultimately was charged with improper conduct. The FSIS has rejected two of her appeals and Hughes recently filed a third appeal on her behalf on Feb. 20.
William Milton, assistant administrator at the FSIS, who rejected the latest appeal in the case, declined a request from UPI to comment on the allegations of export certificate falsification.
The accuracy of export certificates has been an issue for years at the agency. In 1981, Hughes handled the cases of four veterinarians who were threatened with disciplinary action for not signing export certificates for products they had not inspected personally.
The issue came to a head in 1999, when pressure from the media forced USDA to address complaints from the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, which represents about 80 percent of the 900 veterinarians employed by the FSIS.
That year, FSIS officials issued a new directive clarifying how veterinarians should handle export certificates. The 1999 directive, which remains in place today, advises veterinarians they should sign only certificates they can verify as accurate.
Friedlander said he was forced to sign false export certificates during his stint in the early 1990s as chief veterinary inspector at a Pennsylvania meatpacking plant.
"I was pressured into it all the time," he said, noting if the plant staff thought the veterinarian inspector was holding up their operations they would complain to USDA management, which in turn pressured the veterinarian to speed up the certification process.
"I would be doing my regular job and then all of a sudden over the intercom, they would page me to come to export," Friedlander said. "If I didn't sign them, they'd (plant employees) call up Washington, D.C., and complain to higher management. Then I'd get a call from my supervisor urging me to sign the export certificates because the company is in a rush."
Friedlander noted he often could not take the time to do a proper inspection because it would require opening the packages and inspecting the products and then resealing the packages and putting them back.
"It could be cocaine in there and then stamped as beef tenderloins? Who the hell knows? It sounds funny, but it's true," he said. "And a lot of these countries (receiving U.S. products) don't know that."
Friedlander noted he has heard similar stories from other USDA veterinarians, including some who currently are employed by the agency.
"A lot of these veterinarians have said, 'I just sign it, I don't even look at it,'" he said.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail email@example.com