Poor controls led U.S. prisons to buy whole cow hearts disguised as ground beef: watchdog

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Bureau of Prisons lacks policies to safeguard against serving potentially contaminated food to its inmates, a problem that led it to buy substandard products, including whole cow hearts disguised as ground beef, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog has found.

In a report made public on Tuesday, Inspector General Michael Horowitz faulted the BOP for not having “a protocol in place to ensure its food supply is safe” and failing to “properly document or communicate food vendor quality issues.”

As evidence of the problem, Horowitz pointed to multiple criminal cases filed against food vendors since 2014.

One case in 2018 involved a food vendor who was accused of selling adulterated spices that were diluted with undeclared filler ingredients to the federal prison system.

Another case from last year involved two individuals who pleaded guilty to charges they had sold the bureau $1 million worth of adulterated meat, including whole cow hearts that were labeled “ground beef.”

“The BOP should develop a quality assurance plan... to mitigate the risk that a vendor could deliver a substandard product,” Horowitz wrote.

In fiscal 2019 alone, the BOP served 175 million meals, or nearly 479,000 meals per day, for its 180,000 inmates. Food and food services account for about 5.7 percent of its $401 million budget.

A BOP spokesman said it “appreciates” the inspector general’s work and is reviewing the recommendations.

The report represents yet another management headache for the BOP’s newly minted director, Michael Carvajal, who was tapped by Attorney General William Barr just last month.

The BOP, with 122 institutions nationwide, has struggled with staffing shortages and tight budgets throughout the Trump administration.

The bureau faced scrutiny in February 2019 after its federal jail in Brooklyn suffered power supply issues, resulting in freezing temperatures in cells lasting several days.

In August, its federal jail in Manhattan was the focus of a criminal probe after financier Jeffrey Epstein was found dead there while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.

Two corrections officers were later charged with falsifying records to cover up their failure to monitor him.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Nick Macfie and Dan Grebler