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photo of glickmaninterview: patsy mckee

What were they trying to get you to stop?

Stop doing my inspections. Just mak[ing] it very difficult to do my job. ... I know when I drove up there, I would start getting nervous, because I knew that when I got into the plant, I would pray that I wouldn't find anything wrong. You know, you just go up to these plants and you're like, "Oh, I hope I don't find anything wrong," because the pressure is extreme at times in these plants.

At any rate, when you wouldn't find anything wrong, you'd be glad. ... I mean, you're standing there and you're thinking to yourself, "OK, I know what's going to happen if I document, if I take corrective action if it's needed." ...

Were you tempted to look the other way?

Oh, yes. Yes.

Why didn't you?

I just could not do that. I couldn't go home and sleep at night if I did that. ... That's not me. The job is not about me. It's not about the plant. It's not about the plant owner or plant employees. It's about the consumer. It's about us in there, ensuring that there is no contaminated food being put out there on the shelves in the restaurants. What we're there to do is to help ensure that. To go in there and look the other way... No, I couldn't do that. ...

Do you think other inspectors look the other way?

Oh, yes.

How do you know that?


Patsy McKee was a USDA inspector in southern California for 15 years. After new food-safety regulations were approved, giving meat-processing plants more power to conduct their own inspections, McKee says that some companies became more aggressive in challenging her authority. She says she was often harassed and was encouraged not to document sanitation problems. Ultimately, she was transferred away from her district in California to a night shift in Cherokee, Iowa. When she refused to go, the USDA fired her. She eventually filed a discrimination suit against the agency, which was settled out of court in 2001. Here, McKee discusses the intimidating environment in which she worked, as well as the sanitation conditions she documented.

That particular assignment had several plants that had problems. ... The conditions that they were in when I was assigned ... were not something that happened overnight. They had existed. It was a way of life in those plants. And there was no documentation ... on file from this previous inspector.

What sorts of things did you see when you came into this plant that were objectionable?

I saw the insects. ... Old tape on product contact zones that were soiled, obviously.

"Soiled" -- meaning what?

Dirty. "Soiled" meaning dirty.

Like old meat, like blood on the tape, things like that?

... You know, like tape does around the edges where there's sticky stuff? You could see where there was soil, whatever. It could have been many things -- the previous day's product residue on there, building up and getting into a black grimy-type state.

They wanted to take the focus off of the real problems, and those were the unsanitary conditions of those establishments, and then put the problem on my conduct.

On the white cutting boards, there would be these grooves in there. And in those grooves, there would be black, where they used a knife and over a period of time, they get gouges and grooves in the white cutting boards. And then if they're not maintained properly and cleaned properly, they get all this black buildup in the cracks and crevices.

And I saw walls that were dirty, ceiling fixtures, rust, flaking paint units that hadn't been cleaned in obviously a long period of time, because there was buildup on the back, dust.

So you come into this as the new inspector. You object to them. They've been used to getting away with some of this stuff, and you won't let them.

Right.

... What was their reaction to you being tough on them?

[That] I didn't know what I was doing. They would say that I really didn't find the things that I found. It was almost as if they would do everything and anything they could to discredit me and discredit what I was doing in their plants. ...

They would actually take the appropriate action [if I documented them] and clean it up at that time. However, they would appeal either the process deficiency record or the noncompliance record, whichever it was at the time. They'd appeal it and say that it wasn't there -- that those deficiencies were not there.

So they didn't want a paper record of these problems.

Right. They did not want me to document their problems.

Now, if you went in there and you just told them their problems or the deficiencies and you didn't document them, obviously they'd be a lot more happier with you. And that's what happened with a lot of inspectors. ...

Not all of them, but some of them experienced the tension, the harassment, the intimidation from these plant people -- owners, even managers, even employees at times. ... It was easier just to tell them and not document it, or not even tell them. I had a plant owner tell me that the inspector would come to the plant and say, "Page me if anybody comes or calls for me," and leave, never even enter the processing areas. ...

Actually, I was following this inspector ... because he was ahead of me in the rotation. [The union] actually moved him out from in front of me. ... He was a union official. So he didn't want me going behind in his plants and finding the conditions I found, because that was exposing him. ...

Did the USDA ever talk to him or punish him for not keeping a very strict eye on these plants?

Not that I'm aware of. ... He testified at the [Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB)] hearing. And he said in front of everybody that it was easier to talk to the plants than to document, which is totally against what we're trained to do. It was very obvious to the inspection personnel in the room that that's why it was so difficult for me and for any other inspector that's out there that goes into a plant and expects to enforce the rules and the regulations.

I guess you can understand why a plant manager would harass you -- because they have something to lose. They need to keep the line moving, they have tight margins, and all of that. But why would your bosses? Why would the people at [the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)], who should have the same mission as you do of protecting the consumer, come down on you for doing your job well?

If you document in these plants, obviously it shows that there's deficiencies going on out in the plants. And I think they want to keep that number down. ...

The USDA wants to keep the number of problems down?

Yes.

Why?

If there's no documentation that there's any problems out there in the plants, then everything must be working pretty good. And actually, that's not reality. ...

So if you file complaints, you make it look like the system is not working.

If you document deficiencies in a plant, yes. It shows that there's deficiencies out there going on in these plants. ...

[Typically, what would happen when you found something wrong at a plant? What's the process? And what was one of the biggest problems you faced?]

I did the documentation. I would talk with the plant management. I would let them know that they needed to implement corrective and preventive measures. ... [To address] condensation dripping from a refrigeration unit, their first corrective action would be, "Well, we wiped it down." And their preventive measure is, "We'll monitor it once every couple of hours and make sure that it's not there."

OK, we accept that corrective and preventive measure. So let's say a week later, two weeks later, you go in there and you find the dripping condensation from the same area. And you notify them again. You document the problem. And their corrective action is, "We wiped it down immediately." Their preventive measures would be, "We'll monitor it again every two hours."

Well, that's not acceptable, because the first preventive measure didn't work, because it's happening again. So you require them to give you another preventive measure.

And that's where I've found that one of the biggest problems was -- that the inspectors were accepting the same corrective and preventive measures. Not so much corrective. ... But the preventive measure is the key, so that the problem is not reoccurring. And the plant would put a preventive measure down on paper, and the inspector would sign it off. But if it happened again, they would put the preventive measure. It was always--

Doing the same thing again?

... Same thing over and over. They were really not doing anything to prevent. And the inspectors were accepting these same preventive measures.

I had a supervisor ... that said if we keep accepting the same preventive measures, we're part of the problem. And that was so true. I would document as well on memos telling them, "You need more meaningful corrective and preventive measures. And you need to implement those, so that this isn't reoccurring or it's not happening."

And the plants did not want to do that. They were very upset. They'd ask me, "Well, what do you want me to put?" I'd say, "I can't tell you what to put down. If I make the suggestion and it doesn't work, then I'm the one that's blamed." ...

I would talk to the managers, the owners. I might suggest, "Well, a plant down the street, you may want to call them. They may have some suggestions, because they had similar problems and they've been able to find solutions." But those were the only [pieces of] advice that I would give them. ...

I'm the oddball inspector that's not telling them what to do. The whole purpose of HACCP and SSOP is that they take the responsibility. They find their own solutions. ...

When things got bad for you with these plants and with FSIS, they transferred you. Is that a normal procedure? Is that a normal thing that they did then?

Actually, what they did was they said they were going to put me in eggs training. They wanted to train me in egg products. So they put me in a plant to have me trained.

What's wrong with that?

There was nothing wrong with that. ... But the agreement with the union and the agency was that the inspectors would be trained for a certain amount of time. That was two to four weeks, depending on your background, what type of experience you had -- four weeks if you had no processing experience, and two weeks if you had previous processing experience.

Well, they put me in eggs products training for eight weeks. ... I mean, that wasn't supposed to happen.

That was unusual?

Yes.

And they were asking you to move also, right? ... They wanted to transfer you to the night shift in--

Cherokee, [in Iowa].

... Was that an unusual course of action?

Yes.

Why? Was it a punitive thing to do? Did you see it as a punishment?

Yes. ... I did see it as a punishment.

Why?

I had no previous disciplinary action taken against me. I hadn't done anything wrong. All the allegations that were lodged against me were not true. And the sad thing is that if the agency would have followed the directives and the notices that they're to follow concerning industry accusations against inspection personnel -- the appeal process -- [and] if they would have acted upon [my] notifying them of the harassment and intimidation I was experiencing in the plant ... But they weren't doing anything. They were just letting the work environment become more and more hostile for me. ...

What do you think the end result of your case has been on other inspectors in some of the plants maybe that you were working in? How do you think they've been affected by what happened to you?

I just was talking to an inspector last week that was in one of the plants that I had been in. And they found rodent droppings in, I believe, the processing areas or processing-related areas -- rodent droppings in the plant.

That inspector was very afraid to take any action or document it on an NR -- a noncompliance record. They didn't. That inspector documented it on a separate document -- which is a speed memo -- and just notified the plant that he has rodent droppings. That's sad, because that inspector was afraid to take any action in that plant.

Have you talked to that inspector? Do you know that inspector?

... It was a fellow inspector that told me. They had talked to her. They were with that inspector, and during the course of the conversation, the inspector told this story. ...

Let's talk specifically. That's Global Food, right?

Right.

This is an interesting case. What were the problems you saw at Global Food as an inspector? What problems did you see there?

I saw the dead roaches and insects. I saw direct product contamination. I saw moldy product. I saw just filth in their coolers. I saw the refrigeration units leaking, the condensation. The freezer had actually about a three-foot mound of ice buildup from the floor up. ...

And what's the problem with that?

It shows that there's a leaky unit. The problem is ... that the unit's not working properly to begin with. The water dripping from there could have listeria.

That is one of the sources of listeria?

Yes, one of the sources of listeria is water. And they find it a lot in refrigeration units, drains. ...

So the thing of it is, if you have that condition in the freezer or a cooler, you're creating an unsanitary atmosphere. Global Food had product in their freezer that would be taken out to be further processed. So this freezer condition -- drippy units, building up of ice, the dirty floors, boxes that were damaged, product damage, product exposed -- everything combined was just a very unsanitary condition.

What happened when you reported these problems at Global Food? Were they taken care of?

Yes, initially they were. And after that, I have heard that the problems continued. ... Then I was accused of all these false allegations.

So you had gone to them reporting these obvious problems?

Yes.

And they turned around and attacked you?

Yes. ... The problem there is that they would cook a product ... and they would have records indicating the cooking and cooling of that product -- what time it hit the lethality temperature, and then when it cooled down to, let's say, 130 degrees. Once it hit 130 degrees, they were to have that product cool to 80 degrees within an hour and a half, and then after 80 degrees to 40 degrees within five hours.

So that was the regulation that they were to meet at that time. Well, they would have cooking and cooling records. And then when I'd ask them: "Well, OK, show me your pre-operational and your operational checks for the day as well," they wouldn't have any. So that was an SSOP failure. If they're regulating themselves and inspecting themselves, they have to demonstrate it through their documentation -- which is a critical point in their process as well.

So if they're not inspecting and doing what they're supposed to be doing and documenting it, then they're not regulating themselves. They're not following the regulations that the USDA [set]. ...

What did they say about you?

My circuit supervisor had said that I was not allowing the plants to get used to the new way of inspection, [that] I wasn't giving them time to adjust. ... Well, they've been doing this program for two years. So it wasn't anything new. ... It wasn't something that they needed time to adjust to. In implementing new programs, ... you want to have an adjustment period there. However, you need to realize that you still don't not document, you still don't not take care of problems. ... You still have to do your job in the meantime, you know? ...

In Global Foods, I saw a memo where they called you a "loose cannon," and the agency has said in different ways that you were difficult. They tried to blame you for the problems. Is that fair?

No. See, they wanted to take the focus off of the real problems, and those were the unsanitary conditions of those establishments, and then put the problem on my conduct. They were saying, "Her conduct, she can't get along with anybody, she's abusive, abrasive." [They said I was] calling them "f-ing liars," I'm "out of control," compliance has to ask me to leave the plant because I'm so, you know, all these things.

The actual owners were out there creating a hostile work environment for me, but however, they were turning it around and saying it was me that was creating that hostile work environment, which was just not true.

You did not call them "f-ing liars"?

No.

You did not harass them?

No, absolutely not. My documenting the failures in the plant, that's what they were objecting to. They were objecting to that in order to get me out of the assignment, out of the circuit, really. I mean, why didn't they reassign me to San Fernando circuit? Santa Ana circuit? Why ship me clear to Cherokee, Iowa? You know what I'm saying?

And then they said that I needed more supervision. When you're put on a night assignment, that's the [least] supervision anybody could get. ... I mean, why did I receive outstanding and superior ratings and cash awards, and all of a sudden, I just can't get along with anybody?

Why do you think that they changed overnight?

I believe because they don't really want us to do our job. They go out there, they say all the right things. The agency tells us to do all the right things, document, [tells us], "This is the action you're supposed to take when this occurs." But when you actually get out there and do it, they don't really want you to do that, either. And that's why they allowed the plants to create a hostile work environment. It helps them back off the inspector, as well. ...

So, in theory, you think HACCP is a good idea? ...

Yes.

In practice?

... These plants are not going to regulate themselves. And that's basically what's it's shown. ... Going out there and observing these plants and monitoring that they are effectively implementing their HACCP programs is not happening in many of the plants.

And your experience proves that.

Oh, yes. ...

The National Meat Association is who the owners of the company will call if they don't like something you've done?

Yes. ...

And how does the National Meat Association apply pressure that comes back and affects what you do? ... Did you feel like you were getting it from all sides?

Oh yes. ... The president of the National Meat Association wrote a letter [about me], and it was distributed to the plants in the Riverside circuit. ... I'm not sure if she put my name in there. But everybody in the whole circuit knew some of the problems that had happened. And she described them, and the plant owner told me that one of the gentlemen that works for the National Meat Association would call them on a weekly basis asking about me, "What is she doing in your plant? Is she creating a problem?" ...

You had a reputation.

Yes, I had a reputation, and I believe the reputation was that I actually did what the agency wanted me [to do], trained us to do. And because I had done that in three plants, ... that spread around like wildfire. ...

If you had been a strict inspector, how come that wasn't a problem earlier? Why did it just become a problem at this point?

... Because the plants are now responsible for their plants. ... And I believe when the responsibility shift, that they didn't want anybody to know they were not taking care of their responsibility. ...

Do you feel like you should apologize for being a strict inspector?

No, I don't apologize for going in there and doing my job and documenting like they asked me to. ... They said I was overzealous. They were comparing me to the previous inspector that was in there. ...

We found direct product contact zones that were contaminated with previous days' product residue. ... And as I had documented in the past, they were marking off equipment [as] acceptable without even inspecting it. ... It couldn't have happened at a better time, with him standing there. What I had been documenting and telling him what was going on, happened right before his eyes. He could not deny it. ... However, that didn't help, because he just acted as if it was nothing. ... I realized that it didn't matter what I did or how I did it; the truth was not going to be told. ...

I know you've settled with the agency on one case. Can you talk about that settlement?

No.

Are you content with the settlement?

Yes.

Do you feel like you won?

Yes, I do.

And were exonerated?

Yes. ...

I just want you to touch again, if you could, on that whole aspect of feeling like you're getting it from both sides -- both from the owners of the plant, and the powers that be, and how that affected you.

The effect it had me, really, was it was scary. Like I said, driving up to a plant, you know you're going in there, and you've got to do the job. And knowing that if you went in there and there was some action you needed to take as far as maybe rejecting ... because of sanitation conditions, or there's cross-contamination, I knew that the plant was going to do and say whatever they could to back me off. I knew that if they called the district ... or my supervisor, that I was not going to get any support. ...

It felt like you were getting it from both sides, both from the company and from your own bosses. No one was on your side.

Right, right.

Which is worse? The companies' bosses are after you or that your own supervisors are not supporting you?

My own supervisors not supporting me. ... It was just a miserable place to be. ...

Do you think it affected the quality of your work?

Oh, yes. The reason why it affected the quality of my work is that it was like I was afraid to make a mistake. You know, nobody's perfect. And [what] the agency would tell us before is, "You know what? It's OK to make mistakes. ... You regroup, you go forward." Well, in that environment, I was so afraid to make any mistake that I think I just couldn't even really do my job. ...

It's one thing to see animals killed, animals torn apart, all of that, which would happen. But were the conditions somehow particularly bad or unsanitary or alarming to you, somebody who had seen this growing up. Is that what was shocking to you? Or was it just the scale of it, and the numbers? ...

I could tell you what I found out to be horrifying. ... In slaughter plants, when you slaughter an animal, there's a tagging system. ... One of the tag's number goes with the viscera, one goes with the feet, and one goes with the carcass. ... Head, feet, viscera, carcass, four. To just get production going, numbers up, they would actually put the head on the rack. ... Let's say we found something in the head -- a lymph node [irregularity]. Those conditions could mean tuberculosis.

Then you would go around and make sure that you got the feet of that animal, the carcass, the viscera, all the parts to the animal by that tagging system. Well, by the time you got through inspecting the head, everything else was gone. They were going so fast that there was no way that they could keep the tagging correctly, OK?

So you would find tuberculosis in the head of the carcass, and try to track down the rest of the parts of the animal, and you couldn't?

Right. ... I was the one that realized that they were ... going so fast on the other end that that number was [with] a completely different viscera. It was a completely different carcass. If you found something in the head and you went back to find the rest of the parts, you may have parts, but they weren't the right ones. ...

When I first got there, they [the slaughterhouse] were slaughtering close to 700 ... a day. So you can figure 700 a day was pretty good for that establishment. When we found out that they were not identifying all the parts to the animal, then it slowed their production down to about 300 a day. ... That's when I first moved. ...

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