The Production and Price Summary tables are missing this week because they are full of blank cells. The omissions are the result of an ongoing snafu at USDA involving the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Anyone who looked online for USDA’s Estimated Weekly Meat Production under Federal Inspection (SJ_LS711) or Actual Slaughter Under Federal Inspection (SJ_LS712)) on Thursday and Friday found this statement: “The slaughter data for this report is currently unavailable, and it is not known when the issue will be resolved. This report will be released again after the data is available. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

It’s a bit more than an “inconvenience!”

The situation is due to problems getting data from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Such inter-agency foul-ups are nothing new. Recall late last year – and on a few occasions earlier this year – that data on imports from Canada were not published due to difficulties in getting the information from federal inspectors at border crossings.

There are five immediate reports in question. We say “immediate” because over the long run, more reports, such as monthly and quarterly slaughter and production, will be impacted.

Estimated Daily Livestock Slaughter under Federal Inspection (SJ_LS710) will not be impacted by the unavailability of Federal Inspection slaughter data because USDA-AMS gathers the data for the 710 report via daily calls to packers who provide their slaughter estimates on a voluntary basis. The 710 report was published as usual on Thursday and Friday and AMS does not anticipate any interruption of this report. The 710 report, however, involves very little detail about the types of animals, and is only an estimate of what packers plan to slaughter, by species, on each given day. It does include the previous day’s counts for steers/heifers vs. cows/bulls, but it does not include further delineation for cattle, and has no delineations for hogs or sheep. Neither does it include estimated carcass weights nor, consequently, production. Friday’s report can be found at: www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/sj_ls710.txt.

The reports that are impacted by the FSIS situation are SJ_LS712, Estimated Weekly Meat Production under Federal Inspection and SJ_LS711, Actual Slaughter under Federal Inspection. The former uses the estimated daily slaughter numbers from SJ_LS710 and weight estimates based on actual historical data from FSIS to predict weekly production. Two other reports that are affected are the SJ_LS713, Actual Livestock Slaughter by Region, and the SJ_LS714, Cow Slaughter under Federal Inspection. Both of these get released at the same time as the SJ_LS711.

SJ_LS711, SJ_LS713, and SJ_LS714, are based on actual FSIS data and present the most complete view of slaughter and weights by species and type of animal and meat production by species. They are published two weeks after the fact. It is the lack of these data for the week of April 16 that prevented AMS from estimating weights and production for last week and, thus, prevented SJ_LS712 from being published on Friday, April 29.

What’s the solution to this problem?
First, I understand that FSIS has installed a new computer system that is not working correctly or working with other USDA agencies. So part of this is technical, but technical changes need to be managed well so they do not interrupt the flow of vital information.

Second, there is an administrative problem. We need to always remember that the primary mission of FSIS is to keep our food supply first. I understand that that mission must not be compromised. But FSIS is, to my knowledge, the only USDA agency with personnel in every plant and that has those personnel in places who can accurately determine things like the sex of the animals. As such, their data are critical to the knowledge positions of every market participant and to the efficient functioning of this market. Any “we’ll-do-that-other-stuff-when-we-get-to-it” thinking needs to be corrected. While it may be secondary to food safety, this data acquisition function is still very important.

In my opinion, this situation needs to be rectified from the top of USDA. We can’t allow individual agency heads to make these decisions in their own little silos. Leadership needs to make it clear that the agencies are to work together to make the entire system work. To urge a quick and permanent solution to the situation, please contact USDA leaders at:

The Honorable Tom Vilsack
Secretary of Agriculture
202-720-3631

Dr. Elizabeth Hagen
Undersecretary for Food Safety
202-720-2644

Alfred V. Almanza, Administrator
Food Safety and Inspection Service
202-720-7025

Steve R. Meyer, Ph.D.
Paragon Economics, Inc.
e-mail: steve@paragoneconomics.com