Inspectors raise food safety concerns with pilot program - GAP

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

GAP claims it has evidence from meat inspectors in the pilot program plants
GAP claims it has evidence from meat inspectors in the pilot program plants

Related tags Food safety Usda

Food safety concerns have been raised by government inspectors taking part in an inspection pilot program, according to an advocacy organisation.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP) released affidavits from four US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors who raised worries about the speed of processing lines and the number of trained USDA staff in the plants as part of its Food Integrity Campaign (FIC).

The whistleblower protection organization said concerns include line speeds that run up to 20% faster than traditional inspection, which makes it difficult for plant employees and USDA inspectors to detect contamination on carcasses.

The affidavits, signed late last year, said company employees lack adequate training and often fail to identify signs of defects and contamination that could result in foodborne illness.

HACCP Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) has been running since 1998.

Hormel and FSIS response

GAP has launched a petition urging Hormel, one of the largest pork producers in the US, to abandon its use of high-speed inspection.

Hormel told FoodQualityNews that one of its facilities and one subsidiary location are taking part in the HIMP pilot program, as well as a third-party contractor.

In addition to the USDA inspectors at the facility, there are Hormel Foods employees trained to the standards of the USDA conducting the additional inspections. We’ve found this allows the USDA inspectors better perspective and more flexibility to monitor activity and identify any issues.

“Employees have the ability to stop a line if an issue is detected.”

The firm said it had found oversight is more efficient and effective in plants in the HIMP program and the program places more accountability on the company, and it welcomed that responsibility.

“The important thing to remember is USDA protocols require periodic sampling for microorganisms of concern. This is truly the measure of an establishment's performance. Our facilities consistently meet or perform better than published USDA microbiological performance standards.”

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) published a report late last year​ to evaluate inspection findings in market hog slaughter establishments in the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Inspection Models Project (HIMP).

It looked at whether the HIMP inspection system is performing as well as the existing system in terms of safety and wholesomeness of products produced and overall consumer protection.

The agency found HIMP market hog establishments are receiving more off-line food safety related inspection verification checks than the traditional non-HIMP market hog plants.

FSIS said based on the findings it sees no reason to discontinue HIMP in market hog establishments.

An FSIS spokeswoman told us: "FSIS’ November 2014 evaluation shows that the food safety outcomes at the pilot facilities are on par with those operating under other inspection systems.

"However, additional analyses, including a science-based risk assessment, will be required to determine its impact on foodborne illness rates, and whether this pilot program could be applied to additional establishments​."

Amanda Hitt, director of GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign, said the USDA had already refused to listen to its own inspectors on a similar high-speed inspection program for poultry last year.

“Now the agency is poised to reduce oversight and increase line speeds at plants with hogs. It’s become abundantly clear that the Department of Agriculture is not interested in listening to the food safety concerns voiced by its own staff."

A Government Accountable Office (GAO) report criticized the evaluation of poultry pilot projects from the USDA last year​.

USDA inspector affidavit

The names of three of the inspectors, and all identifying information of the specific plants, have been covered at their request but one comes from Joe Ferguson, who according to the affidavit, is a USDA inspector at one of the five trial plants.

“USDA’s supervision in the HIMP pilot plants is limited. We went from having seven inspectors assigned to the slaughter line to only three physically on the line now. Our physical inspection duties are now performed by plant sorters that work for the company. 

“Line speeds are running 1,300 carcasses per hour and the company is killing as many as 19,000 hogs per day. That is a dramatic increase from previously, when they ran at about 1,100 carcasses per hour.

“We used to stop the line for bile contamination, chronic pleuritis, hair/toenail/scurf and have these defects trimmed/removed, under HIMP, these are considered “Other Consumer Protections” and we are no longer allowed to stop the line so they may be removed.” ​  

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