Tips from an industry hotline operated by the USDA led to the arrest of eight current and former USDA inspectors and employees of 13 produce wholesalers working at the Hunt's Point Produce Terminal Market in the Bronx, NY.
In a meeting Dec. 13 held at the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association office in Alexandria, VA, USDA Ag Marketing Service Administrator Kathleen Merrigan encouraged anyone who had further information to utilize the hotline number (800-424-9121).
Merrigan said the investigation into the alleged taking of bribes totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars has led to a total look at all USDA inspection services. She said the Agriculture Marketing Services' first knowledge of the case was on the day the FBI indictments were made public Oct. 27. She had since learned there have been rumors of problems at Hunts Point for 20 years.
The industry is calling for prompt and fair restitution for damaged companies and improvement in the present inspection service around the nation so shippers can once again develop trust in the system.
United Chairman Bruce McEvoy, CEO of Seald-Sweet Growers Inc., said he is appointing a task force to meet privately at the United 2000 Convention Feb. 26-28 in Phoenix.
Merrigan noted that inspections at firms whose employees had been indicted were suspended for a period. One of the affected firms sued the Department and, pursuant to a settlement agreement, is again receiving inspection services upon the condition that the indicted individual not be present during the inspections. It is expected that all of the other firms with indicted employees would be able to receive inspection services under similar circumstances.
USDA said federal inspectors operate at 38 terminal markets and an additional 100 sites where AMS licenses state employees. There are 170 federal and 500 licensed state inspectors at destination point, and a total of 5,500 federal/state shipping-point inspectors.
About 200,000 destination-point inspections are conducted each year. Wages for inspectors range from entry-level of about $20,000 to $44,000.