WASHINGTON, April 23 (UPI) -- U.S. Department of Agriculture officials pressure their veterinarians to sign documents that falsely certify food items are safe for export, an agency veterinarian and an attorney representing federal veterinarians told United Press International.
The veterinarian and the attorney also charge that management officials in USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service have intentionally created an atmosphere of fear and harassment designed to intimidate employees into blindly following supervisors' orders -- even if those orders involve signing fraudulent documents.
"They have suspended one veterinarian and have pressured others when they balked at signing certificates that were not truthful," said Bill Hughes, an attorney for the National Association of Federal Veterinarians in Washington, D.C., a group that represents about 80 percent of the approximately 900 veterinarians in the FSIS.
"We're afraid that it is going to become increasingly widespread if something is not done to stop it," Hughes told UPI.
An export certificate confirms a food item produced in the United States was prepared in accordance with the safety inspection requirements of foreign countries.
USDA spokesman Steven Cohen told UPI that FSIS was not aware of any problems with its export certification process.
"We would launch an investigation if anybody had any information that veterinarians were pressured to sign export certificates," Cohen said.
Hughes said, however, he has notified the FSIS of the problem both formally and informally, including in private meetings with several top administrators -- from Philip Derfler, assistant administrator in the office of policy and program development to Elsa Murano, undersecretary for food safety.
One agency veterinarian, who was reprimanded for refusing to sign an export certificate he thought was false, said USDA management will take punitive actions against employees who question the validity of export certificates or agency policy.
The veterinarian, who works as a meat inspector for FSIS, asked UPI to withhold his name and the details pertaining to the incident in which he was involved because he feared retaliation from the agency for speaking out.
"They (FSIS management) do what they want -- they get even," said the veterinarian, who has more than 15 years experience with the agency and has been given awards and accolades for being a superior employee during that time.
"They're bad -- I'm telling you, they're bad," he added.
Asked if authorities in foreign nations should have any faith in U.S. export certificates, the veterinarian replied: "No, the export certificates don't mean anything. A lot of the veterinarians just sign it because they're forced into signing it."
Hughes currently is representing two USDA veterinarians who were suspended without pay for two weeks for refusing to sign export certificates they deemed to be false. Hughes said he was aware of other USDA veterinarians who have encountered similar pressure from management. "I know of several, probably two, for sure," he said, adding, "I don't know how many there are that didn't have the guts to come forward. There are a number of people who would love to come forward if they were subpoenaed by a Congressional committee."
The allegations, if true, could have negative implications for U.S. meat and poultry exports, which recently have taken a hard hit due to the discovery of a cow infected with mad cow disease in Washington state last December, as well as several flocks of birds infected with avian influenza in recent months.
The accusations also might have parallels to an ongoing investigation by the USDA's Office of Inspector General into the mad cow case. The OIG is looking into allegations the USDA veterinarian involved in the case was pressured by management to alter an inspection sheet that indicated the cow was a downer after it tested positive.
"Over half of the poultry produced in this country goes overseas," Hughes said. "If these countries found out about some of our practices, it could really hurt our country's economy."
The Federation of Veterinarians of Europe, a group that represents more than 150,000 veterinarians in 30 European countries, already has taken notice of the situation and they find it troubling.
"It is essential that veterinarians only certify matters they have verified as being correct," FVE executive director Jan Vaarten told UPI. "FVE cannot accept that veterinarians are put under pressure to deviate from this, their professional obligation."
Hughes currently is handling a case involving a veterinarian in Mississippi who refused to sign an export certificate for poultry that was to be shipped to Russia.
Christina Dumal, an FSIS supervisory veterinary medical officer, had cited a Mississippi poultry firm for two infractions on two consecutive days -- Aug. 26 and 27, 2003. Several employees were observed not wearing smocks or gloves.
The infractions, which Dumal documented in two non-compliance reports obtained by UPI, meant the product produced during those days -- over 1 million pounds of chicken, a considerable investment for the company -- did not meet the export requirements Russian authorities and the plant had agreed upon only three months earlier in May.
So when it came time to sign the export certificate, Dumal refused because, according to documents in her appeals, she considered signing it would be illegal, a concern that Hughes said was justified.
"She would've been committing a federal crime and could've been individually liable, too," Hughes said. "Orders from her boss does not get her off the hook."
Plant employees complained and both Dumal's immediate supervisor and her district manager ordered her to sign the export certificate, despite the non-compliance reports.
She continued to refuse and FSIS ultimately charged her with improper conduct for disobeying orders, and accused her of telling the plant employees "there would be hell to pay" if they went over her head to get somebody else to sign the export certificates. She was suspended for two weeks without pay.
Dumal, who has been employed by the agency for 10 years with no other discipline history, denied making the statement to the employees in a sworn and notarized affidavit included in her first appeal.
According to the case documents, FSIS officials did not interview Dumal to get her side of the story prior to making their initial decision. Officials have continued to insist, through three appeals, that she told the employees "there would be hell to pay." Officials also went so far in one appeal as to say they found her "less credible" than the plant employees, whose written accounts of the event were not sworn and notarized and were not consistent with one another.
As to the larger issue of whether the export certificate was inaccurate, FSIS authorities agreed with Dumal that the plant had violated the Russian requirements.
William Milton, assistant administrator of FSIS, acknowledged in a Feb. 2, 2004, written response to Hughes that the company had failed to meet the export requirements for the product produced during the two days in question.
Milton's response goes on to note, however, the infractions had been corrected after the fact. "It is not reasonable to expect all (noncompliance records) to result in the condemning of all product processed during a workday, particularly minor violations which have no noted contamination of product," he wrote.
This would seem to conflict with the USDA's current directive on export certificates, which states, in unequivocal language, veterinarians should not sign certificates they consider to be inaccurate.
"The certifying official does not sign the certificate if he or she has reason to believe the information is not accurate or complete," the directive states. It includes no qualification that there must be evidence of contamination of product. The document cites the inability to verify that a product meets the export requirements as a "good and sufficient reason" for not signing an export certificate.
Milton declined a request by UPI to comment either generally on allegations of export certificate falsification or specifically about Dumal's case.
Asked why Milton, who is one of the highest-level employees in FSIS's Office of Management, and the sole signatory on the agency's rejection of Dumal's latest appeal, would not comment, Cohen said: "This is an administrative matter. He's not really involved."
Other USDA officials could not comment on Dumal's case because it is still under appeal, Cohen said.
Dumal's appeals, which were prepared by Hughes, also attempted to alert officials this was a widespread problem. In a Dec. 15, 2003, appeal filed with FSIS administrator Garry McKee, Hughes wrote, "at least six high level, responsible agency officials, were informed about this matter and ... the subject was and is being ignored, and apparently tacitly or actually approved."
In another incident Hughes is handling, a veterinarian in New York was punished for refusing to sign an export certificate for baby food in 2003. Russian requirements prohibit the import of lamb products due to fear of scrapie, the sheep version of mad cow disease.
Hughes said the veterinarian, Walter Friedlander, noticed that one of the ingredients listed on the label of the baby food was lamb broth, so he refused to sign the export certificate. The FSIS suspended him for two weeks without pay and ultimately relocated the veterinarian to a plant 200 miles away from his home, a commute that he still makes to this day. The veterinarian also received an unsatisfactory review performance, even though he has been with the agency for more than 20 years and his performance always had been deemed superior, Hughes said.
Dumal continues to appeal her case. Hughes filed Dumal's latest appeal on Feb. 20, and said he is confident she ultimately will prevail, but he remains concerned about the larger pattern he sees.
"Even if the veterinarians win in the long run, they're put through hell," he said, "because FSIS ... is taking the harshest action they possibly can against people."
This has resulted in a schism between management and the inspectors in the field, he said. "I said last summer morale was at an all-time low, but now I think it's even lower," he said.
The anonymous veterinarian said there is little benefit in appealing the FSIS decisions.
"Appealing it is just prolonging the agony," he said. "You're better off just sucking it up or getting out of the agency."
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org