Last week it was poultry; this week it's pork. The front page of today's Washington Post has published yet another incriminating piece on the USDA's pilot inspection program. We've already heard serious whistleblower concerns about the program at numerous poultry plants, but now insiders involved at pork processing facilities have come forward with their concerns.
Mirroring several of the concerns many USDA whistleblowers brought to FIC regarding the poultry program (including pressure to keep quiet when they see food safety problems), six anonymous USDA inspectors have raised concerns from hog pilot plants.
From the article:
Several said company and government workers are yelled at, threatened and shunned if they try to slow down or stop the accelerated processing lines or complain too aggressively about inadequate safety checks. They also warned that the reduction in the ranks of government inspectors in the plants has compromised the safety of the meat.
“We are no longer in charge of safety,” said an inspector with more than 15 years of experience. “That’s what the public needs to know.”
Their anonymity due to fear of whistleblower retaliation is not a surprise. Of the many USDA whistleblowers that submitted affidavits about the poultry program, only retired inspector Phyllis McKelvey spoke out publicly since she was not risking her job to blow the whistle. One anonymous USDA inspector had their voice distorted and image shadowed for an interview on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, an example of the length whistleblowers feel obligated to take to warn the public without facing retaliation.
Just like the poultry program, the pilot pork processing plants increase the speed of processing lines, reduce the number of USDA inspectors at each plant, and replace them with private company employees.
According to the article, three of the five(!) hog plants under the pilot program "were among the 10 worst offenders in the country for health and safety violations, with serious lapses that included failing to remove fecal matter from meat."
The USDA has also allowed other countries to follow a similar inspection process in plants exporting meat to the United States, but multiple episodes of contamination have occurred at such plants in Canada and Australia. The giant recall last year from XL Foods, whose E. coli-tainted beef sickened at least 18 people, stemmed from a plant closely resembling the USDA's pilot inspection model (Read FIC's coverage of XL Foods whistleblowers here and here).
The pilot pork inspection program has been running for more than a decade, yet the USDA has not done any tests on the program's performance. Perhaps because the results wouldn't be to their liking? Once again, the agency is choosing to ignore, or otherwise silence, its own inspectors in order to push a program that has no evidence of improving food safety. If public health is truly the government's number one goal, then officials should heed the words of whistleblowers on the front lines of the food system.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.