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article imageWhistleblower criticizes USDA's high-speed inspection process

By Karen Graham     Feb 6, 2015 in Food
Last week, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) released affidavits from four USDA inspectors with the agency's high-speed inspection pilot program (HIMP) raising serious questions about the program.
The four U.S. Department of Agriculture meat inspectors were working in slaughterhouse operations owned by Hormel Foods Corp. Their shocking allegations were brought to the government whistle-blower protection organization, GAP. The whistle-blowers claim the government-run pilot program that is determining the feasibility of a reduced inspection protocol in Hormel-controlled plants is "out of control," according to Joe Ferguson, one of the on-line meat inspectors.
An anonymous inspector wrote in his affidavit: “Under the HIMP model, company inspectors take over the duties of USDA inspectors at the lymph node incision and head inspection stations. Line speeds under HIMP have increased from about 1,100 hogs per hour to about 1,300 per hour, but there is still the same number (3) of inspectors on the line.”
Ferguson, in his affidavit, also pointed out that prior to the pilot program now in effect, the line was stopped if there was bile contamination, hair, toenails or evidence of chronic pleuritis. Now, he wrote, inspectors are not allowed to stop the lines for the defects to be removed. Ferguson also wrote, “The only time we are allowed to stop the line is for food safety concerns, and even then we get yelled at.”
The comments from a third anonymous meat inspector are even more critical. He wrote that the USDA inspectors had “identified a number of critical problems with the program, including the flawed data upon which the program is based, the inability of plant personnel to adequately take over USDA inspectors’ duties, and a decrease in food safety and quality that comes along with this switch to company inspection.”
The USDA's high-speed processing system was already put in place for poultry late last year. The present pilot program involves three Hormel controlled plants that process pork. Ferguson was a 23-year veteran USDA meat inspector who retired in September last year from Quality Pork Processors, an exclusive co-packer for Hormel located in Austin, Minnesota.
In a scathing critique of the project, Ferguson called the HIMP program “a sham the career bureaucrats have drafted to get rid of inspectors,” he also accused the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) higher-ups of being “in bed with the regulated industry. The companies are now calling the shots. Pretty soon, the agency will have no authority.”
His allegations have not been corroborated.
So what kinds of unwanted, and possibly contaminating materials are being allowed to pass through the pork processing lines? The affidavits point out specifically the following defects that Hormel inspectors failed to spot, including abscesses, lesions, fecal matter, cystic kidneys and bladder stems, as well as salmonella and other bacterias.
Blame it on federal budget cuts or officials in the USDA being in bed with a regulated industry, but either way, the problem is being passed down to the consumer. In 2011, the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), a public health agency with the USDA, stopped requiring Salmonella verification samples in the carcasses of calves/bulls, steers/heifers and market hog slaughter processing.
The FSIS concluded the results of testing before and after the change went into effect in 2011 proved to be of little consequence statistically. So what that 1.65 percent to 3.05 percent pork or beef in slaughterhouses checked was contaminated with Salmonella. So Hormel is, according to the whistle-blowers, even going so far as to cook their books so they can be allowed to stay in the HIMP project. According to HIMP regulations, a company has to meet or exceed the USDA's standards, and they have apparently dropped.
When one of the USDA meat inspectors complained about the infractions in the Hormel plant to a senior inspector, he was told, “It’s not whether or not people are going to eat shit—they are. It’s just how much.” Enough said.
More about USDA, HIMP, inspectors, Whistleblowers, government accountability project
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