Apparently saving $90 million over three years is more important to USDA officials than keeping diseased poultry out of the food supply. Despite complaints from whistleblowers and consumer advocates regarding USDA's plan to expand HIMP – a deregulated poultry inspection program that speeds product through plants (according to one of our whistleblowers, at up to 10,000 birds per hour!) – the agency insists the oversight roles it will be taking away from federal inspectors (and handing over to industry) aren't related to food safety.
But should USDA really minimize the inspection of chicken that looks like this?
The yellowish skin on the bird above is an example of inflammatory process, a disease lesion that, when seen flying through a traditional plant, can be condemned by an inspector and removed from the line. But at a HIMP plant, as whistleblowers who have worked in these facilities have revealed, USDA inspectors have substantially less authority and are incapable of catching every defect since they are only allowed to look at the backside of the bird.
One whistleblower affidavit sent to GAP explains:
Fecal matter can appear anywhere on the bird, including on the front of the bird, or under the wings, which are folded up. Inflammatory process and leukosis can also appear only on the front of the bird, meaning we won't see it. Tumors can be on the breast that would make the bird condemnable, and may not appear at all on the back.
In HIMP plants, the birds’ organs are also removed before reaching inspectors, who are not allowed to look inside bird carcasses for signs of disease or other contamination. Another anonymous whistleblower explains why checking the insides is essential:
Under traditional inspection, the viscera are usually still attached to the birds during processing. This is important because many diseases like airsaculitis, which can infect an entire flock, are confirmed through looking at the viscera.
This is what a chicken with airsaculitis looks like:
What a disgusting thought – plants selling what is considered USDA-inspected chicken that may, in fact, originate from an unhealthy flock of birds!
Apparently the government isn’t bothered by sick chickens and turkeys entering the food supply. According to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator Alfred Almanza, signs of disease are merely "bumps and blemishes" that don't matter.
So rather than "looking for defects that are quality related but not necessarily safety related," Dirk Fillpot from FSIS explained to Reuters, government inspectors, under HIMP, "will spend more time focused on microbiological testing."
Yes, microbiological testing for Salmonella is important, but does that mean we have to eat scabs and feathers?
The monitoring of carcasses for signs of disease, not to mention fecal matter, shouldn't be disregarded. At HIMP plants, however, that seems to be the case, with the second whistleblower noting the role of USDA as it seemingly works to appease industry interests:
Throughout the implementation of HIMP, the (USDA) district office has worked to make it easier, not harder, for the plant management to get away with more and more. It was almost like they're more concerned with keeping the poultry plants happy at any cost, rather than holding them to a strict standard.
HIMP is all about improving food safety, USDA says? Well,
- Speeding up conveyor belts,
- Preventing inspectors from writing food safety violation reports, and
- Giving oversight duties to company employees who are rebuked for trying to remove defective birds
are all changes under HIMP that suggest otherwise.
As FIC Director Amanda Hitt put it: "It is politics versus practice." She told Reuters:
"You have all these things streaming by - scabs, sores, tumors, feathers, postules, things that before never would have made it to the grocery store," Hitt said. "Everything is designed to keep meat cheap and affordable. But it is unfair to the U.S. consumer."
Here are more examples of poultry diseases and lesions that you wouldn't want missing inspection:
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.