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ABC Slams USDA’s Poultry Inspection Plan

USDA tells ABC it will delay HIMP plan to respond to critics

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will delay a proposed rule to expand a controversial poultry inspection system, ABC World News reported in a scathing segment Wednesday.

poultry-processor-250.jpgThe decision was made “to give the agency more time to respond to critics,” according to the report by ABC’s Jim Avila, who was a key figure in the recent “pink slime” firestorm.

The rule in question would broadly expand the HACCP Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) beyond the 20 poultry plants already participating. The HIMP model reduces the number of Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors on duty and largely turns over physical inspections to company employees, while allowing plants to speed up their lines to 175 birds per minute, over the current 140 bpm limit. FSIS says the proposal will modernize an outdated inspection system, save taxpayers around $90 million over three years, and prevent 5,200 foodborne illnesses, mostly from Salmonella, annually.

The National Chicken Council has been strongly in favor of the proposal, which would save the industry $250 million each year, according to USDA estimates.

Food & Water Watch, the whistleblower advocacy group Government Accountability Project, and some FSIS inspectors have been extremely critical of the plan, arguing that it privatizes inspection and puts consumers at risk.

Avila’s piece, titled “USDA to Let Industry Self-Inspect Chicken,” is likely not going to sit well with Americans, who consume 84 pounds of chicken annually, more than any other meat.

On Twitter, responses to the report were almost unanimously negative, including comments like “I’m sorry what?!” and “Wow can I grade my own exams too?” and “Time to become a vegetarian.”

ABC World News has an average audience of 7 million viewers each night.

FSIS says HIMP plants perform better than non-HIMP plants and that the data supports expanding the pilot — providing both a food safety and taxpayer benefit. 

“Bottom line here is that our experience has shown us that in these plants are not only meeting but exceeding food safety performance standards,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, in a recent interview with Food Safety News. “When it comes to contamination across the board, the HIMP plants are performing at a superior level.”

But FSIS inspector Stan Painter told ABC News that HIMP plants fudge test results by tweaking processes “when they know a test is coming” to make the program look better.

“I not only saw that, as a plant employee, I was ordered to do that,” said Painter.

“They do cheat the system,” added Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food & Water Watch.

FSIS Administrator Al Almanza responded to the allegations in the segment: “We do not have evidence of that. But when we’re told of anything of that nature we take those allegations seriously.”

Consumer groups, progressive activists and the government employees union announced this week that they are delivering 150,000 signatures opposing the plan to USDA on Friday. The groups have also launched a campaign website called LetThemEatChicken.com.

The rule, which is open for comment until April 26, can be found here.

© Food Safety News
  • myra deen

    As a poultry inspector, if the HIMP model project passes, make sure you cook your chicken, buy whole birds and expect a lower quality, although edible, to be on your plate. Think of it as the “pink slime” of poultry.

  • doc raymond

    Inspector Deen’s comments are perfect. “Make sure you cook your chicken…and expect a lower quality.” I cook my chicken now, since over 5% of carcasses test positive for Salmonella, although the carcasses frfom the HIMP plants have a lower positive rate that the plants that still use the same inspection system used post WWII. And the lower quality statement? Yep, that is What FSIS inspectors are now looking for, quality issues like broken limbs and bruised meat. I mean really, is that what our tax dollars should be spent on? Doing quality control for Tysons and Pilgrim’s Pride? Guaranteeing jobs for union members? Jim Avila is “slime” personified. He killed BPI and now wants to kill a great move by USDA to save tax dollars while moving to a system that has been proven to be better than the current when it comes to food safety. Time to get into the 21st century with the poultry inspection system. Time to tell FWW and the bargaining unit to go pound sand. Oh, and Painter’s comment about tweaking processes when a plant knows testing is coming? Does he mean the conventional plants don’t do this also? Come on Stan, be honest with us.

  • Travis Wheeler

    Having worked in both HIMP and traditional inspection facilities I have intimate knowledge of the issues/rewards in both systems. With traditional inspection you have inspectors who in many cases sleep on the line and totally disregard food safety and rely on personal feelings rather than sound judgement to harm industry. I have seen inspectors come into facilities in a bad mood and intentionally harm the facility based on personal issues. Even if the Veterinarian overrides them on the issues, the line is still stopped for the 5-10 minute period it takes for a veterinarian to get to the line. This causes higher production costs which is a contributor to higher retail prices.
    On the other hand HIMP can work especially as it gives inspectors more flexibility in the processing plant to look for root cause issues such as leaks, structural issues and other items which can cause microbiological issues. The inspectors have better flexibility to walk the facility and spot issues rather than sit on the line. I have seen inspectors find great flaws in a facilities system just by being out there on the floor and off the line. Though there is no “perfect” inspection system, I can agree with HIMP as it gives the facility the flexibility to inspect themselves yet the FSIS still has the authority to do what it needs to ensure food safety. I have been through multiple rounds of testing and have never been given a heads-up on the testing shift or dates of testing.
    As far as quality, the Food Safety and Inspection Service is gearing themselves to prevent food safety issues not product quality. In contrast to the earlier statement I have seen much better Salmonella performance in HIMP plants due to the use of organic acids to kill salmonella.These facilities go to great lengths to keep the HIMP waiver so they are very very strict on their processes. I think that saving tax dollars by not having people sit on a line all night/day doing absolutely nothing is a waste especially when a facility has met the salmonella performance standards. Of course no one wants a poor quality chicken, yet quality comes from the farm as well as the processing facility.
    Farm to Fork

  • Cyndy

    Looks to me like the fox guarding the henhouse.
    Also, why is it always the consumers responsibility to look out for themselves when it comes to cooking poultry or meat. If the damn factory farms were shut down and more local farms got into the game without government interference, most of the food recalls would not be happening. Amazing how most factory farmed poultry has salmonella on it and local birds do not. I see a pattern here.

  • doc raymond, what you seem to be saying is that this move opens the door to poultry plants hiring the lowest paid workers they can to act as food safety inspectors.
    And Travis Wheeler, if the trained USDA food inspectors do the acts you say they do, how much more will these same acts happen with the lowest paid workers that doc raymond advocates?
    In other words, both of your comments just demonstrate why HIMP is a terrible idea.
    Add to this the fact of a negative correlation between USDA cutbacks and a rise in salmonella.

  • If it doesn’t pass the smell test I bring it back. Always save the packaging. Rinse it in warm water. Then wash the preparation area and my hands thoroughly before and after. Then cook it it well.

  • Cyndy, I don’t believe the article differentiated between factory farms and local farms when it mentioned the increased incidence of salmonella.

  • Minkpuppy

    When is FSIS going to address the “tweaking of processes” in traditional and now allegedly, the HIMP plants, whenever a salmonella series is in effect?
    The Agency hides behind the plant’s HACCP plans and justifies their inaction by stating “We can’t dictate what level they run the chlorine/organic acids at. As long as it’s above the minimum stated in the plan, they can run it as high as they want.”
    I spent 10 years in a traditional chicken plant and I know for a fact that chlorine levels were purposely elevated by the plant I was in. The supervisors and QA personnel admitted it to us. They practically said “Nanna, nanna, Boo, boo! What are you going to do about it?” while thumbing their noses at us.
    We complained repeatedly to our front line supervisor and were told to “tell the plant that they can’t change their processes”. That’s it. No instruction on what to do if we caught them changing anything. As long as they didn’t go below the effective levels they stated in the HACCP/pre-requisite programs, there was nothing we could do.
    We could only file complaints based on the chemical irritation to the eyes and respiratory system due to inhaling the increased levels of chlorine etc.
    It’s complete utter BS.
    Mr. Almanza was probably well aware of this phenomenon when he was a District Manager but didn’t act on it. It was happening all over the state. He was dealing constantly with the health complaints so how could he not make the connection?
    Now he says he’s not aware of it? Of course not, because he campaigned to get pilot plants in Texas at some of the biggest poultry companies. Something’s rotten in Denmark if you ask me.
    Most of the time, I have no problem with Mr. Almanza and the way he’s tackled some of the Agency’s policies. He’s excellent in dealing with personnel problems. However, I have to question how truthful he’s being about the fact that the Agency is not aware of plant’s tweaking their processes during micro testing.

  • doc raymond

    Shelley, either your ignorance is showing, or you are attempting to influence readers with incorrect language. i will let you tell us which it is. But, so everyone knows where I am coming from, let me quote Shelley who apparently has no last name. “this move opens the door to poultry plants hiring the lowest paid workers they can to act as food safety inspectors.” Shelley, they are food QUALITY inspectors. If you are a line inspector you very well know that. And we all know the big companies cannot afford to have broken wings and legs in their packages with their names on them. They will hire quality people to inspect for quality control and FSIS will have more feet on the ground to actually do FOOD SAFETY inspection tasks.
    Cyndy, also with no last name,if the “factory farms” were shut down, most Americans would not be able to afford chicken as a source of protein, or is that your goal?

  • Disgusted

    Eh, what’s up doc??
    Do Cheap food prices really justify the deplorable CAFO factory farms — complete with a daily diet of drugs, arsenic and antibiotics to keep them alive in their crowded cages and make them grow faster to maximize industry profits??
    People should eat this unhealthy stuff? One thing at least — it sure keeps the health industry economy at full steam ahead….

  • BB

    For years the chicken line inspectors were under the impression that their jobs were food safety related. I think they’re having a hard time seeing themselves as merely “food quality” inspectors. Let’s face it…who do you think has been inspecting the carcasses while some of the inspectors are sleeping on the line and/or not paying attention??? The plant trimmers!!!! While they may not have had the “training” that the USDA line inspectors have had, many (not all) of the plant trimmers are just as good as the inspector when it comes to finding visual defects. The main thing related to food safety was looking for fecal contamination, but that pretty much went out the window once the agency started granting online reprocessing waivers. Minkpuppy is right about “tweaking the process” during a Salmonella set, but that’s another can of worms. Go ahead union…do what you do best. Scare the public in an attempt to save jobs.

  • doc raymond, you seem to have a fixation on names. You also seem to imply that our not using last names somehow impacts on the viability of our comments.
    I look at the comment by “MinkPuppy”, and though the person doesn’t use their real name, I can understand why because this person sounds like an inspector, and I’m taking what they’re writing at face value. You seem to, also, since you didn’t challenge it.
    Since “doc raymond” provide absolutely no real identification, and you don’t link to a web site, and since this site doesn’t demand full names (probably so someone like a poultry inspector can comment without fears of retaliation), perhaps you can leave off the name demands in future discussions.
    Your comment was a railing against union workers, and the only reason I can think of to account for your animosity in this regard is that the union workers are professionals who cost more than whatever the poultry companies want to hire. Putting QUALITY into the people’s titles doesn’t mean anything. Putting FOOD SAFETY into caps doesn’t mean much, either.

  • doc raymond

    Shelly, I think real people use real names to show that they stand behind what they say, not pseudonyms and anonymous rhetoric. Minkpuppy actually submitted her comment before I submitted mine, but it was not posted yet. And i know minkpuppy, and we have off line communications. My “real identification”, which most readers of FSN know, is Richard Allen Raymond, MD, former Undersecretary for Food Safety at the USDA.

  • Minkpuppy

    Man, the sleeping-goofing-off-lazy-good-for-nothing-inspector on-power-trips argument is so stupid it makes my head hurt.
    Regardless of who’s sorting the birds, you’re going to have people who don’t pay attention or sleep on the line. You’re going to have company QA inspectors on power trips just like USDA inspectors get on them.
    I worked QA before I got into USDA and had coworkers that loved screwing production supervisors every chance they got. It’s human nature. A plant employee can do just as much damage, if not more than a USDA inspector, to a company’s bottom line when they’re ticked off at management. Plant employees have a better access to product to sabotage operations. Recalls have happened where I’m at now over employees deliberately putting glass into products.
    The proof will be in the pudding. Will the plants actually discipline their QA inspectors if they sleep or goof off? Or will they let the defective birds ride the line into the chiller? What will the offline inspectors be allowed to do about it when they see it?
    HIMP allows the Agency to sort out the lousy inspectors by making them apply for the 8/9 jobs. Some will make it and some won’t. The ones that don’t make the grade for promotion won’t be fired outright–they’ll be given an opportunity to transfer elsewhere. If they don’t take the transfer, who’s fault is that? Is it really the Agency’s fault? The union wants to pretend that all of us are upstanding citizens and flawless inspectors, but the reality is much different.
    I’m a union member/steward, but I don’t like the union’s tactics sometimes. In addition to fighting this, they should be helping and preparing the inspectors make the adjustment when it inevitably happens, not telling them to not take training and drumming up anxiety. The union also has a bad habit of protecting employees that would have been canned long ago in private industry for all sorts of bad behavior.
    I won’t be popular for saying that but all the inspectors know it’s true. I just call it like I see it.
    In my experience, the plant was overjoyed by the screwing off, sleeping inspectors because they could slide all sorts of nasty things by them. However, there was usually only one or 2 inspectors on our shift that were a problem. I could usually tell you who was on the line when I did my fecal checks by the number of birds going by with s%*t on them. Aggravated the crap out of me, especially when my supervisor let it slide because he was grateful to have a warm body on the line.
    The rest of the inspectors did their jobs and did them probably too well. Why? Because we knew the plant was letting the defects go into the chiller. The online trimmers wouldn’t pull anything off that wasn’t marked for salvage because they would be written up.
    The plant didn’t like me very much–I didn’t sleep and I didn’t gossip with the plant employees when I worked the line. My supervisor got regular complaints that I sent too many birds to reprocessing. I wrote a lot of NR’s for fecal zero tolerance and reprocessing noncompliances. They couldn’t even properly trim IP off the dang birds at the offline reprocessing station.
    The bottom line is this: A lot of the things that make poultry sick really aren’t a risk to humans. Yes, the tumors, IP and lesions look nasty but they aren’t going to make people sick. Those disease conditions are not zoonotic (transferrable to humans or other animals).
    Bruises and broken legs/wings have never killed anyone and they don’t make it into the final product. Those birds are cut up and the affected parts are tossed. They’re quality issues, not food safety issues. It’s hard for inspectors to wrap their brains around that. If the bird was sick, then it must be bad for people, right? Not necessarily.
    The focus needs to be on where Salmonella and Campylobacter come from which is the feces and contents of the digestive tract. I’ve never understood why feed contamination of the crop wasn’t part of zero tolerance. The crop is a hotbed for Salmonella. We can better control that through more fecal checks to evaluated sanitary dressing procedures. Is 80 birds a shift/ per line sufficient? Probably not, especially when 250,000+ birds go through a plant in a day. But it’s a heck of lot better than the 20 birds per line that I checked as an offline inspector in a traditional plant.

  • Minkpuppy

    Yes, I do use a psuedonym because I am an inspector who would probably get in a huge amount of trouble for some of the things I post in my comments. I’m not ready to come out publicly or be a “whistleblower”.
    I already know what’s going to happen to the ABC news “whistleblower” inspector if his or her identity becomes known by the Agency. They’ll find every excuse in the book to get rid of that person and smear them in the process. I’ve seen it happen.

  • tara food inspector

    in my opinion it is letting the fox watch the henhouse and the governments play on words to make the public think they care when really bottom line is same as plants its all about money at the expense and health/ well-being of the american people we took an oath to serve and protect there are different levels of inspection different grade level of inspectors the gs8csi inspectors are the ones testing and monitoring the salmonella e-coli ect you can not see those things with the naked eye the gs7 line inspectors are getting the conditions that are visible and while supposedly theses things wont kill you they dont say it wont make u sick but i know i do not want to eat a sep bird or one full of ip or airsac dont want one with tumors either and if the consumers knew exactly what these looked like they wouldnt want it either and if we are still throwing away birds with these conditions then there has to be a reason for it right?as for plant personelle knowing what an inspector knows not true half of them dont even speak english and bottom line is they have to do what their bosses say inspectors have had training we know what we are looking for and though admittingly we are not perfect rest assured we do alot more than what the plant themselves will and as for broken bones and bruises that has never been the job of the inspector we only condemn bruises that cover more than 3/4 of bird all else is plants responsibility

  • Randall Glasgow

    Visual inspection is necessary to remove diseased birds from commerce. You can’t see the actual bacteria but you can see that the bird is diseased. Diseases have a causal organism (s). It is misrepresented when it is said that inspectors look for bumps, bruises, scabs. Inspectors look primarily and foremostly for pathology on the outside of the bird as well as the inside visceral cavity and the viscera itself. The poultry inspector’s talley sheet is largely a list of diseases. These diseased birds can’t be caught looking at the birds go by at 175 birds/min. Don’t get me wrong, microbiological testing is necessary but it is only part of what is needed for thorough inspection. If this new inspection is approved, I don’t think I want to eat chicken anymore.