WASHINGTON — After a week of controversy surrounding its abrupt removal of pork dishes from the national menu for federal inmates, the government did an about-face this week and put pork roast back on the prison bill of fare.
The Bureau of Prisons disclosed the decision to The Washington Post hours after a Republican Senate leader expressed dismay at what he implied was a wasteful survey of inmates’ food preferences and a lack of transparency in the decision.
“The pork industry is responsible for 547,800 jobs, which creates $22.3 billion in personal incomes and contributes $39 billion to the gross domestic product,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote in a letter Thursday to Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels, Jr.
“The United States is the world’s largest exporter of pork, and the third largest producer of pork,” Grassley wrote, warning that the “unprecedented” decision to remove pork from federal prisons would “have consequences on the livelihoods of American citizens who work in the pork industry.”
Grassley is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the federal prison system.
The new pork policy has affected 206,000 federal inmates since it started Oct. 1 with the new fiscal year. It was widely panned by, not surprisingly, the pork industry, a not-insignificant lobbying force in Washington. It was praised by the chicken and beef industries, natural competitors to pork. Muslim groups feared a backlash from anti-Islam groups that could spin the decision into a case of the federal government acting under pressure from Muslims — and some did.
Edmond Ross, a spokesman for the prison bureau, could not explain what prompted the government’s quick turnaround. “I’m not cleared to say anything and I don’t have answers for you,” he said late Thursday. An explanation from senior prison officials could come this week, he said.
Ross had explained last week that based on annual surveys of inmates’ food preferences, pork lost its appeal in the prison system years ago. In the last two years, the menu had dropped from bacon, pork chops and sausages to just one dish: Pork roast, the entree now back on federal prison dining halls.
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Ross also blamed the ban on what he called the growing cost of pork. But Grassley was skeptical. He wrote:
“According to a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, the decision was based on a survey of prisoners’ food preferences that reflected that pork has been the ‘lowest-rated food’ by inmates for a number of years.
“To corroborate the validity of the claim that prisoners indicated a lack of interest in pork products, I am requesting copies of the prisoner surveys and responses that were used to support the determination to no longer serve pork in federal prisons. Additionally, the spokesman indicated that pork had been the lowest rated food, ‘for several years.’ Please supply the surveys and responses dating back as far as prisoners may have indicated their dislike for pork products. In addition, please provide a line item description of the costs incurred to conduct each survey performed.
“The Bureau of Prisons’ spokesman indicated that pork was expensive to provide. Please provide any economic evaluations the Bureau of Prisons has relied on that detail the cost of pork as compared to beef, chicken, and non-meat products such as tofu and soy products.”
The National Pork Producers Council, the Washington-based trade association that represents the nation’s hog farmers, had pledged last week that it would not “rule out any options to resolve this” and was busy formulating a strategy to fight the prison pork ban.