My journey to USDA Inspector-hood began with 2 days of training in bustling Des Moines, Iowa and the most in depth background report I have ever submitted to. I didn’t think too much of it when I was asked to fill out paperwork about past addresses, employers and education but when G-Men started calling past roommates and acquaintances I realized that this was no joke. I suppose “The Man” has every reason to care what my ex-roomie and hairstylist Steph Perry had to say about me but I probably should have warned her before she got an unmarked envelope in the mail asking her to verify that she was indeed my Sex and the City watching buddy from our 211 ½ W Water Streer apartment. As far as the training went, I was expecting some hands on pig inspection techniques but it was really more about not accepting bribes from corporations in exchange for “looking the other way” as tainted meat makes it’s way into the food system and, my favorite, being issued a super sexy USDA issued helmet. I honestly spent 2 full work days watching “By Hook or by Crook” a dramatic re-enactment of bribery scandal involving a USDA inspection agent, but hey, it was all on the taxpayer’s dime, so what did I care. After I signed the oath that all government employees are required to sign protecting the public trust (insert bald eagle/American flag montage here) I was on my way to rural Iowa to start work!
Before I made my way to the killing floor (technical term) I needed some supplies. I already had my USDA helmet, and my USDA smocks were at the tailors getting embroidered with my name. I was responsible for buying a “node inspection hook” and a deadly looking curved 6” beef skinner knife that I’d eventually use at the head station as well as a pair of boots off of which I could LITERALLY spray pig brains. The killing floor was separated into 3 stations through which I would rotate throughout the day. The first was the head station where I would use the aforementioned hook and knife to delicately slice the pig’s lymph nodes to check for Tuberculosis as the pig swung along on a chain at about '60 hogs a minute' which was great practice for my knife skills. The second station was viscera where, as the name implies, I inspected steaming hot pig guts for pneumonia, cancers or other diseases that would make the pig unfit for human consumption. While I was literally up to my elbow in intestine I also had to visually inspect the carcass across from me for anomalies like bruises or infections and had to (using hand signals and broken Spanglish) instruct the company’s probably-illegal-immigrant-employee to, “Cut off that pig’s 5th leg!” or “Make sure that giant cyst doesn’t get turned into bacon!” It was at this station where the edible offal was separated from inedible offal with the help of our big blue CONDEMNED stamps. Any lungs with pneumonia were deemed inedible (but suitable for dog food) but the uteri of the gilts were boxed up and shipped off to Mexico for a specialty taco. The third and final station was called the rack and involved palpitating the kidneys that were still attached to the backbone and assuring that no contamination had occurred during the slaughter process. If I had a quarter for every time I burst a kidney whilst delicately squeezing it to check for abnormalities (thank god I wore glasses) I’d be a rich man. I should note, at this point, that the USDA does an incredible job preventing contaminated/unhealthy meat from being sold to the American public. We dealt with an insane volume of product everyday and any bit of meat even slightly suspect got condemned and did not make it to the people. Above and beyond that, the USDA has a huge affect on the humane treatment and slaughter of the hogs that end up next to your omelet.
Every minute that a USDA inspector shuts down the production line, the owner of the processing plant (who shall remain nameless) loses thousands and thousands of dollars, so when we shut down the plant for almost half a day due to some potentially inhumane treatment of the pigs it was a big damn deal. I’m legitimately proud of my work as a USDA agent and I think that that agency, however understaffed and overworked it may be, does an incredible service for the consumers of America. Unfortunately, our commercial feedlot/food system produces some unhealthy pigs for us to eat. Everyone asks me if I still eat pork after my experiences with the USDA, and I do (cause it’s delicious) because I know that the product is safe, but the biggest lesson I took away from the whole thing is that I want to raise pigs, but do it right. I want to choose heritage breed pigs that are suited to the Iowa climate, not these naked pink bacon-factories that get frostbite in the winter and overheat in the summer. I want to feed them chestnuts and apples and let them forage for themselves instead of shoveling god-knows-what meal down their throats to get them up to market weight as soon as possible. And I want to take them from living animal to delicious pork product as humanely and respectfully as possible… and then eat them. All in all I learned a ton about where our food comes from (and how I could improve upon that system) I honed my knife skills (pun intended) but I also learned that however intriguing a foray into consumer safety may be, it is not a career choice for this slick city fag, and I’m much more suited to co-hosting The Curious Cook so stay tuned for more.