WASHINGTON, May 6 (UPI) -- Investigators with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Inspector General's office are looking into allegations that cow brains and other risky materials that could carry mad cow disease might be entering the human food supply in violation of agency policy, United Press International has learned.
Stanley Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, told UPI he was interviewed by the USDA's Office of Inspector General for four hours on March 9 regarding allegations he raised last December about a breach of mad-cow safeguards.
The National Joint Council is the union representing federal meat inspectors.
Another involved party who requested anonymity also told UPI about being interviewed by OIG agents recently.
Painter said he had been informed other USDA meat inspectors were aware of cases where employees of meatpacking plants failed to ensure specified risk materials or SRMs -- such as brains and spinal cords -- from cows over 30 months old did not enter the nation's food supply.
SRMs from older cows are considered most risky for transmitting mad cow pathogens to people. The USDA banned the materials in the wake of the first U.S. case of mad cow in 2003. The action was taken to safeguard the public should more cases of the deadly disease appeare in the United States.
Painter said he worries that if the banned cow parts enter the human food supply, they could endanger consumers. Humans can contract a fatal brain-wasting illness known as variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease from eating beef products contaminated with the mad cow pathogen -- also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE.
"My concerns were two-fold," Painter said. "SRMs entering the food chain and the USDA policy isn't adequate enough to prevent SRMs from entering the food chain.
He added he is troubled by what he termed "the agency's unwillingness to do anything about it."
Consumer groups also have raised alarm about the alleged violations.
"We're very concerned," Tony Corbo, legislative representative of Public Citizen, told UPI. "The whole food safety system is in jeopardy here."
The OIG would not comment on the matter. Paul Feeney, OIG's deputy counsel, said the agency was looking into whether the USDA was effectively enforcing its ban on SRMs in meat products, but would not discuss the status of the Painter issue.
USDA spokesman Steven Cohen said the agency looked into Painter's claims and found nothing to substantiate them.
"We conducted a very exhaustive investigation to determine if any of those things could be true, (and) found no indication BSE regulations are not being effectively enforced," Cohen told UPI.
That statement conflicts with what others have said, however.
Felicia Nestor, a consultant to Public Citizen, told UPI she has seen internal USDA documents that support Painter's allegations. Nestor said she is aware of other evidence that such violations could be occurring in at least four states, some of which may be found in USDA's non-compliance reports. USDA inspectors file such reports when they observe a meat-packing plant in violation of a rule or policy.
Nestor added that last January, she attended a meeting at which two USDA officials -- Merle Pierson, acting undersecretary for food safety, and Barbara Masters, acting administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service -- told consumer groups they were aware of both violations in the SRM policy and records noting the problems in the agency's database.
Corbo, who also attending the meeting, corroborated that account, and added that Public Citizen had requested the non-compliance reports from the USDA via the Freedom of Information Act in January, but so far the agency has not responded, despite a federal law requiring it to act within 30 days.
Painter said OIG investigators told him in March they did not have the non-compliance reports and also were having difficulty obtaining them.
Feeney did not respond to UPI's question whether USDA had resisted providing access to non-compliance reports. He said David Gray, another OIG employee, would answer those questions but Gray did not respond to UPI's phone call.
Asked if USDA had looked through its non-compliance database to determine if any existed that support Painter's allegations, Cohen said: "Nobody is saying there haven't been non-compliance reports written. There are no enforcement reports that support the claim that inspectors are being intimidated from noting non-compliance or that export requirements are being violated."
Regarding claims the agency had resisted providing non-compliance reports to OIG, Cohen said, "When OIG asks for data ... we provide what they ask for."
Although Painter's allegations first surfaced in the media in December, the OIG did not look into his claims until Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., urged the agency to do so during a hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture last February.
By that time, Painter had been charged with personal misconduct by the USDA. In response, 19 consumer groups, including Public Citizen, wrote Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns accusing the USDA of violating the Whistleblower Protection Act and launching "apparent retaliation" efforts against Painter.
"The concern was that ... instead of looking into those issues of safety, they looked into Painter himself," an aide to Hinchey told UPI. Hinchey "thought that was totally inappropriate," the aide said.
OIG officials have informed Hinchey's office they interviewed Painter and also are investigating how the USDA handled his complaints, the aide said, and added Hinchey plans to follow up on this matter.
Painter accused the USDA management of trying to silence whistleblowers.
"The agency's philosophy is, 'you should keep your mouth shut and you shouldn't report those things' -- see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," he said. "Instead of trying to address the problem, they immediately try to downplay it and try to make the person reporting it not seem credible."
The USDA has denied it retaliated against Painter.
"He wrote a letter making certain allegations and he was asked about those specific allegations and he was represented by counsel at all times," Cohen said.
Painter initially voiced his concerns in December in a letter addressed to William Smith, assistant administrator for field operations at USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. He wrote the union was concerned because plant employees were not properly identifying carcasses of cows over 30 months old and therefore the SRMs were not being removed "and these high risk materials are entering the food supply."
In addition, Painter wrote, USDA inspectors were aware of instances in which Mexico's anti-BSE export requirements were being violated. Mexico banned kidneys from cows over 30 months of age, but in some instances these were being processed by U.S. plants preparing products shipped to Mexico.
Painter wrote that the union thought inspectors should be instructed to double-check the work of plant employees to ensure cows over 30 months of age were appropriately identified. The union also wanted the USDA to grant inspectors the authority to enforce Mexico's export requirements.
Smith did not respond, Painter said, so he released his letter to the media. A few days after the media reports, he said, a USDA official visited his home while he was on Christmas vacation and asked him why he sent the letter and for the names of the other inspectors involved.
Three days after Christmas, the USDA charged Painter with personal misconduct for not divulging the names of the inspectors or the meat-packing plants involved. Painter responded he could not provide that information because he did not know it. He said he was intentionally kept ignorant of the names because he suspected the agency would attempt to retaliate against those who spoke out.
In January Painter was brought to the USDA's headquarters in Washington, where he said he was "interrogated" for three hours. Painter said it seemed like the USDA officials who questioned him wanted to intimidate those who had voiced concerns, rather than determine if there was a problem with their mad-cow policy.
"They never asked 'Where did this happen and how can we fix it?'" he said. "All they asked about was the names of inspectors who told me this, so they could go and crack down on them so this wouldn't happen again."
The next week, the USDA brought the presidents of the seven regional councils of the inspectors union to agency headquarters. Painter said his attorney -- who also represented the seven regional presidents -- told him they were asked questions about their communications with him and nothing about the alleged BSE violations.
USDA officials were "asking them how often did they talk to Painter, did you talk to him the weekend before he wrote the letter, trying to get internal information from us. None of that had anything to do with BSE," he said.
The department brought Painter in for second interview Jan. 18. He said the agency made a last-minute switch in the location -- from Alabama to Arkansas -- that prevented his regular attorney from being present. Instead, he was represented by a lawyer who was unfamiliar with the case and who Painter had met for the first time just before the questioning.
Painter said the agency officials asked him questions that suggested they did not understand USDA policies and implied he should have handled the reports of alleged violations by doing things that would have been a breach of official agency procedures.
"The people who developed these questions for me had no idea what was going on. How can they judge me as being wrong when they don't know what they're talking about?" he said.
Painter said he estimates the agency so far has spent $12,000 investigating him.
"Why didn't they spend that researching issues and changing policy to protect the consumer?" he asked. "They felt it was easier to go out after me rather than make a policy change."
Painter said the violations continue to happen and noted he just recently learned of another one.
"The potential is there for it to happen all across the country," he said. "It's not just in one location, it's not isolated, because the policy is the same nationwide."
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org