LOS ANGELES (AP) — Sometimes, government inspectors responsible for examining slaughterhouse cattle for mad cow disease and other ills are so short-staffed that they find themselves peering down from catwalks at hundreds of animals at once, looking for such telltale signs as droopy ears, stumbling gait and facial paralysis.
The ranks of inspectors are so thin that slaughterhouse workers often figure out when ''surprise'' visits are about to take place, and make sure they are on their best behavior.
These allegations were raised by former and current U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors in the wake of the biggest beef recall in history — 143 million pounds from a California meatpacker accused of sending lame ''downer'' cows to slaughter.
The inspectors told The Associated Press that they fear chronic staff shortages in their ranks are allowing sick cows to get into the nation's food supply, endangering the public. According to USDA's own figures, the inspector ranks nationwide had vacancy rates of 10 percent or more in 2006-07.
''They're not covering all their bases. There's a possibility that something could go through because you don't have the manpower to check everything,'' said Lester Friedlander, a former USDA veterinary inspector at a plant in Wyalusing, Pa.
Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, acknowledged that the department has been struggling to fill vacancies but denied the food supply is at risk.
''Every single animal must past antemortem inspection before it's presented for slaughter, so only healthy animals are going to pass,'' she said. ''We do have continuous inspection at slaughter facilities.''
Similarly, Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, defended the meatpacking industry's safety record. ''It is interesting to keep in mind how heavily regulated we are,'' she said. ''Nobody has this level of inspection.''
The current and former inspectors and other industry critics charged that the staff shortages are also resulting in the mistreatment of animals on the way to slaughter, and may have contributed to the recall announced earlier this week.
U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin, said Thursday that his Senate Agriculture, Rural Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a Feb. 28 hearing on the recall.
Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer and the presidents of the Humane Society and the American Meat Institute, among others, will testify, he said in a printed statement.
The USDA recalled the beef after the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video that showed slaughterhouse workers at the Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. kicking and shoving sick and crippled cows and forcing them to stand with electric prods, forklifts and water hoses.
Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society's president and chief executive, said the video was filmed over a six-week period last fall and all the abuse happened when USDA inspectors were not present.
''The inspection system obviously has enormous gaps if these routine abuses could happen,'' he said. ''The inspector would show up and if there were downed animals, the workers would try to get them up before the inspectors got there.''
Generally, downer cows — those too sickly to stand, even with coaxing — are banned from the food supply under federal regulations. Downer cows carry a higher risk of mad cow disease. And because sickly animals typically wallow in feces and have weakened immune systems, downer cows are more likely to carry E. coli and salmonella, too.
Veterinary inspector looks for such symptoms as an unsteady gait, swollen lymph nodes, sores and poor muscle tone.
Industry critics say the staff shortages are compounded by a change in USDA regulations in the late 1990s that gave slaughterhouses more responsibility for devising their own safety checklists and for reporting downer cows to the USDA when inspectors are not present.
That policy places slaughterhouses on an honor system that can lead to abuse in an industry that thrives on close attention to costs, said Stan Painter, chairman for the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, which represents 6,000 inspectors nationwide.
''The fox is guarding its own henhouse,'' said Painter, who also works as a part-time inspector at hog and poultry packing plants in the South. ''If you throw a three-pound chicken away, so what? But if you throw a cow away that's 300 pounds of meat, and you can't get any money out of it, that's a big issue.''
Inspectors whose job is to make sure that the cattle are treated humanely said staff shortages mean they are forced to adopt routine hours for their checks, removing the element of surprise.
USDA numbers show anywhere between 10 and 12 percent of inspector and veterinarian positions at poultry, beef and pork slaughterhouses nationwide were vacant between October 2006 and September 2007. In some regions, including Colorado and Texas, a major beef-producing state, the rate hovered around 15 percent. In New York, vacancy rates hit nearly 22 percent last July.
To bolster its ranks, the department is offering big signing bonuses of at least $2,500 to inspectors willing to relocate to 15 states. The agency has 7,800 inspectors covering 6,200 federally inspected establishments, 900 of which slaughter livestock.
USDA's Eamich blamed the vacancies on competition with private-sector wages, high costs of living and the often-undesirable rural locations of many slaughterhouses.
The agency hired 200 new inspectors in the past year, bringing staffing levels to their highest point since 2003, and cut veterinarian vacancies by half through hiring incentives, the spokeswoman said.
Felicia Nestor, a policy analyst with Washington-based Food and Water Watch, said the food supply may be at risk.
''I have talked to so many inspectors who used to work for the industry, and part of the training is how to get around the inspection. They've got walkies-talkies to alert each other to where the inspector is, they double-team the inspector,'' she said.
At two packing houses in Nebraska, veterinarians monitor up to 700 head of cattle at a time for signs of illness — just enough to make sure all the cows are standing, said one veteran inspector who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job.
The inspector has worked for 15 years as an inspector at two plants in Lexington and Grand Island, Neb. One-quarter of the inspection positions at one of his plants have been vacant now for two years, he said.
''There are so many vet shortages out in the field right now, they can't keep it properly staffed,'' the inspector said. ''When they come into these big slaughter facilities, they'll put 200 head in a pen. All you can tell is they're moving.''
Friedlander, who left the USDA in 1995, said he recalled checking up to 220 cows an hour by standing on a catwalk above a pen of hundreds of animals. He would also check to see if cows could walk by having workers drive them from one pen to another, six or seven cows abreast.
''If you're a vet, you see the first cow, you might see the second cow, but the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh cow you might not see,'' he said. ''How can we tell if there's any facial paralysis or droopy ears? You can't tell.''
USDA's Eamich said that there is no limit to the number of animals an inspector is allowed to look at at one time, ''but they have to look at every single one.''