HIMP: A Disaster Waiting to Happen with Poultry Inspection

poultry_whistleblowerIn January 2012, the USDA announced a proposal to expand a pilot program – the HAACP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) – that shifts responsibility away from government inspectors at poultry processing plants to the companies themselves. The program has been running several plants throughout the southern U.S. for years, but would expand to include about 200 facilities nationwide under the proposal. Immediately, red flags went up. FIC staff began hearing from a number of USDA inspectors on how expanding HIMP was an immediate threat to food safety. GAP launched an investigation into these concerns.

On April 5, 2012, FIC (through GAP) made affidavits publicly available from inspectors who have worked at both HIMP and non-HIMP plants, illustrating the serious problems the program directly poses to public health. The release occurred in conjunction with a New York Times article on our affidavits.

On May 29, 2012, FIC released four additional affidavits that further challenge USDA's proposed inspection plan. Three of the affidavits are from federal poultry inspectors who work or have worked at HIMP plants, and a fourth is a USDA inspector with over 10 years' worth of experience working within the private poultry industry.

See below for the affidavits, and see GAP's first and second press release for additional information.

A Threat to Public Health

Just some of the numerous problems that the first three whistleblower inspector affidavits independently raise include:

  • At non-HIMP plants, line speeds for bird inspection are set at 72-90 birds per minute (bpm) with multiple federal inspectors monitoring the line, so that each inspector is in charge of overseeing approximately 30-36 bpm. Our whistleblowers have worked in HIMP plants where that jumps up to 200 bpm for one inspector. That means 10,000 birds per hour per federal inspector! These rates are so fast, that inspectors simply cannot look at every bird.
  • Under HIMP plans, federal inspectors are replaced with plant workers who are powerless to speak out against their employers, and are responsible for removing adulterated product. The inspector whistleblowers have witnessed that these sorters are "rebuked by supervisors" when they try to slow down the line for food safety concerns.
  • Under traditional inspection methods, inspectors can see all sides (and the inside) of the bird. But inspectors at HIMP plants can only see the backside of the bird – not the front (where the breast meat is) that may clearly show tumors or scabs. Nor can HIMP inspectors see the inside of the bird, where fecal matter and other disease causing abnormalities are found.

Some of the new concerns that the second round of affidavits raise include:

  • Federal inspectors at HIMP plants are made incapable of, or discouraged from, holding the plants accountable for contaminated poultry. One whistleblower said the inspectors were told by their USDA supervisor to "give [plants] a break" for violations, seemingly so that the plants with high violation numbers wouldn’t be removed from the HIMP program. Another whistleblower pointed out that even if they are able to detect problems amidst breakneck line speeds during "Carcass Inspection," inspectors at his/her plant are not permitted to stop the line.
  • A greater number of contaminated/diseased birds at HIMP plants frequently enter and potentially infect the giant vat of water known as the "chiller" that cools the bird carcasses before they are sent to the processing side of the plant, and then out for consumption.
  • HIMP inspectors, being short-staffed, frequently are unable to complete all of their inspection duties, which has serious consequences for public health. For example, if there are not enough inspectors to do sanitation checks, rodents or garbage could contaminate the slaughter or production areas.

poultry_inspectorThe names of the inspectors, and all identifying information of the specific plants, have been redacted upon the requests of the inspectors. Whistleblower protections for USDA-regulated government employees – like these inspectors – are extremely weak, and retaliation for exposing safety issues is commonplace.

You can download the affidavits (which have the full backing of GAP) by clicking on the following PDF links, or view them in the embedded files below.

Affidavit #1
Affidavit #2
Affidavit #3
Affidavit #4
Affidavit #5
Affidavit #6
Affidavit #7

FIC's Coalition Work on HIMP

On April 2, 2012, GAP joined federal inspectors and other consumer watchdogs at a rally outside USDA's D.C. headquarters in protest of HIMP. See a video recap of the event below:

Rally goers (including volunteers in giant chicken costumes) made it clear that the USDA attempt to deregulate poultry inspection by expanding HIMP is a threat to the consumer, and a move that ultimately prioritizes cost-savings over food safety. Signs read: "Don't play chicken with my food safety" and "Chicken inspection is not a speed sport!"

Several federal inspectors at the rally spoke with FIC staff, explaining how they face harassment on a daily basis – by both the plant as well as their agency supervisors – for stopping a conveyor line in order to properly inspect a bird for potential contamination. As FIC Director Amanda Hitt pointed out, HIMP is more accurately referred to by some as "Hands In My Pocket," encouraging a hands-off policy with less inspectors in the way of quickly getting products to grocery store shelves.

On April 20, 2012, GAP joined federal food inspectors and consumer watchdog groups once again to hand deliver to USDA more than 188,000 combined petition signatures collected opposing the agency's deregulated poultry inspection plan.

What You Can Do

Retired USDA inspector Phyllis McKelvey, who has also come out against the rule, has started a petition to make sure chicken with scabs, pus, and feces doesn't end up on your family's plates. Sign her petition here!

GAP's investigation into the concerns brought up by these whistleblowers has already yielded crucial media exposure. In addition to McKelvey's account of her previous experience working at a HIMP plant, the affidavits are critical in providing the agency with first-hand reports of the disastrous consequences of full implementation of the proposed "Modernization of Poultry Inspection" rule. GAP hopes to hear from more USDA inspection whistleblowers – confidentially or not – who can shed light on exactly what is going on inside HIMP plants.

As mentioned above, the inspectors in the affidavits remain anonymous due to inadequate government whistleblower protection from routine retaliation they face when exposing safety concerns and other wrongdoing.

To see all of GAP's Food Integrity Campaign blog coverage of HIMP, click here.

Select Media Coverage of HIMP

3/14/13 ThinkProgress – New Poultry Plant Rule Would Give Inspectors 1/3 of a Second to Examine a Chicken

1/30/13 KBIA – Modernizing Poultry Inspection Is No Easy Matter

12/6/12 Baltimore Sun – Federal Workers, Others Oppose Poultry Inspection Overhaul

11/29/12 CBS 42 - Former USDA Inspector Warns of Contaminated Meat

11/14/12 WUSA-TV - Phyllis McKelvey Says Chicken Inspection Plan Will Make People Sick

11/9/12 Food Safety News - Former Poultry Inspector Denounces New Government Inspection Plan

11/8/12 Birmingham News - Retired Alabama Poultry Inspector Petitions USDA, says 'Bile, Feces, Pus' Getting into Chickens

9/26/12 Huffington Post - An Insider's Perspective on USDA's Problematic Poultry Rule

8/5/12 Atlanta Journal-Constitution - Playing Chicken on Food Safety?

7/16/12 WSOC-TV - 9 Investigates: USDA Considering Changing the Way Chicken is Inspected

6/6/12 Los Angeles Times - USDA Plans to Let Chicken Plants Run Faster with Fewer Inspectors

5/30/12 The Daily Times - Our View: In Poultry Processing Plants, Who Should Oversee Whom?

5/30/12 Food Safety News - Controversy Continues As Comment Period Closes for HIMP

5/26/12 The Daily Times - Proposed Poultry Inspection Rule Stirs Controversy

4/25/12 The Nation - New Rules Mean New Hardship for Poultry Workers

4/24/12 Kansas City Star - Plan to Modernize Poultry Plant Inspections Draws Concern

4/23/12 Consumer Affairs - Chicken Checkers Cluck Over Privatization Plan

4/19/12 Food Safety News - ABC Slams USDA's Poultry Inspection Plan

4/18/12 ABC News - USDA to Let Industry Self-Inspect Chicken

4/12/12 Reuters - US Poultry Slaughter Speedup Draws Protest

4/9/12 Food Safety News - Debate Heats Up Over Poultry Inspection Proposal

4/7/12 Up With Chris Hayes: You Are What You Eat?

4/6/12 In These Times - Obama Administration Pushes to Privatize Poultry Inspection

4/6/12 Houston Chronicle - Forget Pink Slime: We've Moved on to Poultry

4/6/12 The Daily - Angry Over Birds: Outrage at Feds’ Plan to Ax Poultry Inspectors and Speed Output

4/5/12 The Consumerist - Government Might Let Big Chicken Inspect Its Own Poo-Covered Poultry

4/5/12 New York Times - Plan to Let Poultry Plants Inspect Birds Is Criticized

4/3/12 Grist - Industrial Poultry About to Get Even Crappier – Literally

4/2/12 Government Executive - USDA 'Playing Chicken with Safety,' Protesters Charge

4/2/12 Washington Post - Union, Consumer Groups to Protest Proposed Changes to Poultry Inspections