USDA Seeks to Expand Pilot Program Which Leaves Meat Contaminated With Fecal Matter

Is there poop in your pork and poultry? It’s a serious question.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has plans to expand a privatized meat inspection model that has been in place for 14 years at five hog plants in the United States and which has been found to fail time and time again at preventing contamination of meat — with fecal matter.

The program, known as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) has been in place since the late 1990s and its expansion would replace almost half the USDA Food Safety Service inspectors in industrial meat plants with inspectors employed by those very same companies. It would reportedly speed up production lines by as much as 20 percent.

But a recent article in The Washington Post, reports that three out of the five pilot HIMP plants were among the 10 worst health and safety violators in the country, according to a spring report by the USDA inspector general.

“The USDA all along has been saying that these pilots will prove that removing government inspectors and turning over [their] the responsibilities to the company employees will enhance food safety when, in essence, the exact opposite has occurred,” said Tony Corbo, who directs the food program at nonprofit Food & Water Watch.

Although the HIMP pilot program is still in a preliminary stage, the Agriculture Department has given a green light to Australia, Canada and New Zealand to use this experimental, privatized model of food inspection in meat plants whose products are for export to the United States, even though the foreign plants operating under processes considered equivalent to the HIMP program have experienced an epidemic of contamination-related problems within the past two years, including a Canadian plant which had to recall more than 8.8 million pounds of beef product fouled with E. coli.

Corbo told Truthout that, in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a coalition of consumer groups are formally requesting the USDA halt the HIMP pilot projects and revoke the determination the department has made with foreign countries, which allows them to use similar meat inspection processes.

“In the other countries, it’s going to be a little more complicated [to stop the pilot programs] because the USDA has already given their blessing, unless they re-evaluate the equivalency,” he said.

According to Corbo, poultry companies like Tyson Foods began pushing for the privatized model in the 1990s, under the Clinton administration, and self-selected their company plants for these privatized pilot programs. Currently, 20 poultry plants in the United States are using a similar pilot program to HIMP, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced in January of 2012 that it would expand the program across all poultry plants in the country.

The meat industry continues to support the HIMP program, as well as similar privatized pilot programs operating within pork and poultry plants around the country despite the many problems plaguing these pilot plants. Tom Super, vice president of communications with the National Chicken Council said the HIMP program doesn’t fail to prevent contamination because the cases of contaminated meat found by the inspector general at the HIMP pork plants did not actually leave the plant. The meat found to be contaminated with fecal matter was still caught by health inspectors at the end of the processing line, but federal officials told The Washington Post that the contamination was found much too late in the inspection process.

“In essence, the inspectors did their jobs, the public was protected and no recalls or food-borne illness outbreaks were linked to any of these plants,” Super told Truthout in an email.

He also asserted that the average positive rate for salmonella contamination in HIMP pilot plants is 20 percent lower than the average positive rate of contamination in non-pilot plants. His data is drawn from a 2011 FSIS evaluation of chicken slaughter establishments participating in the HIMP program.

But according to reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the inspector general, there just isn’t enough data to support whether or not HIMP improves food safety.

In fact, the GAO report found that the “FSIS’ conclusion about the pilot project was based, in part, on comparisons of data that were not designed to be comparable.” Additionally, the data FSIS and Super cite is outdated, according to the GAO assessment:

Moreover, data from the last 2 years analyzed did not show a significantly lower prevalence of salmonella for plants participating in the pilot project. According to FSIS officials, FSIS did not collect data to demonstrate the relative effectiveness of plants participating and not participating in any of the pilot projects. Instead, the agency analyzed data for a variety of inspection activities performed in all plants (regardless of a plant’s inspection system) to ensure their compliance with regulatory requirements.

Super also cited data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics showing the poultry industry has had a 74 percent decrease in its worker injury and illness rates since 1994. But again, there just may not be enough data to fully back up the industry’s claims.

Food & Water Watch has teamed up with other consumer advocate groups to pressure USDA to examine the worker safety aspect of increased line speeds at pilot plants, but Corbo says the USDA has thus far been resistant to look at the rates of carpal tunnel syndrome among employees at HIMP plants.

The FSIS did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

“They’re going to increase the line speed, in those plants, to 175 birds-a-minute for chicken plants. There’s only going to be one USDA inspector left on that line, so you tell me how a USDA inspector is supposed to look at three birds every second to determine whether there’s visible fecal contamination on that bird,” Corbo said.

“What they’re essentially doing here is replacing inspection with chemical treatments that they think are going to deal with contamination, with E. coli or salmonella. So the companies are going to be using more chemicals to try to sanitize the meat that we eat instead of having real inspection.”