Since the COVID-19 pandemic brought shortages of beef and pork and sent prices skyrocketing, revealing issues in the supply chain, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture used $10 million in CARES Act money to expand meat processing. But there’s another problem looming: a shortage of meat inspectors.
Right now, 17 inspectors are in charge of inspecting 24 state facilities and seven federal facilities. Many inspectors are nearing retirement and others have up to 90-mile commutes between facilities.
Wayland Kimble, an inspector in the southwest district, said he’s been putting 2,000 miles on his car a month traveling between three facilities as production increases to meet supply chain needs.
“These slaughter facilities have really … kicked into overdrive, and they're working extra hours trying to put out as much product as they can,” Kimble said.
Oklahoma Director of Food Safety Scott Yates said at least six facilities are in the process of upgrading, which would help alleviate the supply chain issues experienced early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The upgrades would also require inspections by the staff that is already stretched thin. Depending on where the facilities are, it could stretch staff thin until they hire new inspectors.
“It's a logistical nightmare,” Yates said. “It's those kind of things that are keeping me awake right now to be honest with you.”
Rep. Ty Burns (R-Pawnee) used an interim study to look at the possibility of using veterinary students to fill the gaps in meat inspection, through programs like internships.
Rosslyn Biggs, an assistant clinical professor and Director of Continuing Education at OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said it’s a route that can be explored for students.
The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture Food and Forestry is trying to fill a vacancy for a veterinarian to advise and help with quality control in the state’s meat processing facilities. It’s a position that’s been open for months. Terry Hardage, a veterinarian with the state food safety program, said it can be difficult to hire because the job pays less than other veterinary professions and it’s difficult to attract graduates.
“When you come out of vet school, you're looking at using your training, working with live animals, doing those things,” Hardage said. “And you know, you've been oriented that way all through undergrad and vet school and ... that isn't always attractive to what we do, because we do oversee slaughter or harvest of animals.”
Yates said it would be ideal to have an inspector dedicated to every facility to avoid wait times. He’s talking with Oklahoma lawmakers to add funding to hire more inspectors, but it’s too soon to say if positions will be opened or if they’ll be able to recruit qualified candidates.
“We can't necessarily put the cart before the horse,” Yates said. “We almost have to wait for those establishments to be opened or really close to being open before we invest the money in hiring new inspectors.”
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