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Yikes! USDA Proposes Privatizing Poultry Inspection

Food Integrity Campaign | January 23, 2012

Disappointing news came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Friday regarding a new proposal to “modernize” the country’s poultry inspection, although the agency would have you believe it’s actually a good idea. In an attempt to “save money for businesses and taxpayers while improving food safety,” the USDA plans to expand a pilot program – the HAACP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) – that essentially shifts responsibility away from government inspectors at chicken and turkey facilities to the companies themselves. FIC blogged previously on why this would be a major threat to food safety, after House Republicans suggested expanding the program in a report last year. Below is a more comprehensive evaluation of HIMP, with responses to Friday’s announcement.

The HIMP program has been run as a pilot for approximately 12 years. In 2001, the Government Accountability Office criticized the project, saying that design flaws “compromise the overall validity and reliability of its results.” There has been no independent review of HIMP data since then. The only information USDA is now providing to the public was assembled by the Agency itself. The Agency is taking comments for the next 90 days on the new proposal, but misleads consumers and refuses to provide adequate information for consumers to make informed judgments about the program.

Phony Salmonella comparison

Agency advertisements of the HIMP program compare Salmonella results from HIMP plants with Salmonella results from all plants, touting the lower rates in HIMP plants. Their use of statistics is misleading, because they leave out important information. Over 85 percent of the HIMP plants are large plants and, in general, the large plants have much better Salmonella results than plants in the small and very small plant categories. HIMP plant results should be compared to large plant results, not the combined results for plants of all sizes. Illustrating this, from FSIS data:

2011 First Quarter (Table 2) – Percent Positive for Salmonella

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2011 Second Quarter (Table 2) – Percent Positive for Salmonella

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A critical appraisal at 1/4 of a second?

The Agency insists that inspectors will still be doing a “critical appraisal” of each bird. However, poultry slaughter plants under the program will now have no line speed restrictions. HIMP plants have been known to run as high as 220 birds per minute, while other plants are limited to 90 birds per minute. This means that inspectors in the HIMP plants will have slightly over 1/4 of a second to inspect the bird for deadly food safety hazards like fecal contamination and septicemic (diseased) carcasses. The Agency refuses to post a video on their website of what an inspector sees at this line speed – so how can consumers provide meaningful comments?

See no evil?

Inspectors in traditional plants quickly review the whole carcass, inside and outside, for signs of contamination. Contaminated birds are then removed from the line. Inspectors in HIMP plants, on the other hand, are only allowed to look at one side of the bird and are forbidden to look inside. This is a critical omission because analysis of fecal findings in poultry carcasses shows that a sizable percentage of fecal contamination is found inside the carcass. In HIMP plants, these carcasses will remain on the line and it is only by dumping in extra chemicals that plants will have any chance of defeating potentially deadly bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter.

What will happen if plants have too much contamination under the new system?

Previously, the Agency promised that plants in the HIMP program would not be allowed to remain in the program if they couldn’t pass strict Salmonella standards. However, the Agency’s own data shows that a number of HIMP plants did not meet the standard and yet none were removed from the program. On Friday, when asked if plants that couldn’t meet the standard would be removed from the program, Agency officials said, emphatically, “Yes!” But then they went on to say that the Agency will use the same enforcement tools in HIMP plants as they do in other plants, which do not include removing them from HIMP.

Can all plants perform well?

Given the Salmonella results above, it should be evident that there is a broad range in the quality of performance of poultry plants, with the large plants currently performing best. On Friday’s call, the Agency forecasted that many of the small plants will opt into the program. There is no guarantee that the new, opt-in plants will be able to meet the stricter standards, and the statistics posted at the Agency’s website suggest that they will not.

The bottom line

While the Agency repeatedly stated that this program is driven by food safety concerns, the Agency said it estimated savings of up to $100 million dollars for the government in the first three years of the program. It also estimated savings for the industry of $256 million per year. Meanwhile, even with its own self-serving self-assessment of the program, it’s best estimate for illness reduction is 1.9 percent. These numbers do not reflect that food safety is the driving concern.

As FIC has stated before, providing adequate government resources on top of stronger whistleblower protections to ensure a safe and accountable food supply can save millions by preventing outbreaks in the first place. This would be a much smarter solution than relying on a weak inspection system touted by industry.

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