(June 25) As I was working on a series of stories regarding the destination inspection service, I had the opportunity to speak to a handful of former and current U.S. Department of Agriculture and Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors. Like employees of any company, the picture they painted for me came from a definite point of view — jaded by personal agendas and career tracks, no doubt — but all sincerely held.

What can they possibly tell the produce industry that the industry doesn’t already know?

As one quote I read recently said, “There are few nudities so objectionable as the naked truth.”

I can’t presume the opinions shared with me were the naked truth, but they were naked emotion.

From these anonymous inspectors came stories of gender discrimination, hard work in freezing and hot weather, bribes declined, corruption suspected, frustration with management, arbitrary performance reviews, a code of silence, workplace hazards and injury, getting along and going along, standing up and getting out.

Some are common employee gripes, but that laundry list is not the typical office environment.

Inspectors are individuals who can influence the fortunes of nearly every part of the supply chain. They are depended on to perform impartial, timely and accurate inspections on loads approaching the value of their annual salary. They are in money positions, but they are making relatively low wages.

One female Canadian inspector said when she started in the inspection service more than 20 years ago, it wasn’t easy for a woman to work shoulder-to-shoulder with wholesalers. She recalled that some threw fruit in her direction — “not to hit you, but to sort of intimidate you.”

They would balk at pulling samples she marked for inspection, which —unlike in the U.S. — is the responsibility of wholesalers in Canada.

“They would say ‘What if I don’t pull them?’ and I said if you don’t pull them, you don’t get an inspection.”

That she now enjoys positive relationship with the trade is a tribute to her grit and the grudging ability of the industry to adjust.

LACK OF SUPPORT

In the U.S., one ex-inspector I spoke with said USDA management during his era didn’t provide much support on the issue of wholesaler misconduct.

“The way the USDA was operating before, it was like you were on your own,” he said.

Without getting into specifics of what he saw, suffice it to say he walked away from money on the table from unethical dealers who wanted him to downgrade produce. When he did, another inspector was called in to grade the load.

Eerily, he said not a lot of other inspectors besides him complained about low wages, which started out at less than $20,000 about a decade ago.

“When you are honest in a place where there is corruption, people tend to discriminate,” he said. “I got sick of it.”

It is a new era now, and he believes the USDA management is doing better He thinks computerizing the system and the use of more digital images will provide more information to growers and farmers. Still, he said suppliers without eyes and ears at the market are vulnerable.

“If the USDA makes one mistake and overscores defects, ... these growers can be robbed so easily,” he said.

THE CUSTOMER’S ALWAYS RIGHT?

Another said inspectors can be put in tough positions if they blow the whistle on bribes.

“These people (USDA management) have been controlled by the lobby and the customers. You can’t do anything against them,” he said.

“It is the worst place for an honest and educated person.”

That is indeed a hard-edged complaint, one that conveys a sense of loss and punishment in what is supposed to be a fulfilling public service career.

Still another inspector said the Agricultural Marketing Service is driven by generating user fee funds: “If you crank out seven to nine inspections a day, they don’t care how accurate you are.”

Let’s hope that is not the case.

The customer service focus of the USDA, while seemingly just what the industry wants, may mitigate against the overall welfare of the inspection service. The customer is not always right.

Just as it would be folly to believe comments from a few inspectors represent the majority, it would be naive to think all the inherent challenges of the inspection service have been solved in the reforms that have taken place since Operation Forbidden Fruit.

More needs to be done. Alternative ways to pay for the service should be explored. Inspector pay and working conditions should be improved. For the integrity of the system, inspectors should be moved to different markets every few years.

Honest growers and honest receivers have a stake in the job performance of inspectors — and that is the bare-naked truth.