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Former Poultry Inspector Denounces New Government Inspection Plan

A former poultry inspector is calling on the government not to shift the responsibility of poultry inspection from federal inspectors to companies, a move being considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since 1998, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has been testing out a poultry inspection system called the HACCP Based Inspection Models Project, or HIMP. Under HIMP, company-employed inspectors would largely replace federal inspectors on bird processing lines. Only one federal inspector would be required to monitor each line, as opposed to the current two or three usually present. Line speeds would increase from their current limit of 140 birds per minute to a limit of 175 bpm.

After implementing HIMP as a trial at 25 plants over the next 14 years, FSIS submitted a proposal to implement HIMP nationwide in January of 2012.

Now Phyllis McKelvey, a former FSIS inspector, has started a petition on Change.org that urges FSIS not to implement HIMP because it allows for more damaged or contaminated birds coming off inspection lines.

McKelvey, who was in the poultry industry for 44 years and worked at the first U.S. plants to implement HIMP, says she noticed more birds with broken wings, feathers and fecal contamination making it through inspection after her plant switched over to HIMP.

After being examined, carcasses are put in a large chill tank, where they are brought down to a temperature of 40 degrees. Here, birds carrying infected scabs or fecal matter can contaminate other carcasses.

Another problem with HIMP is that, at 175 birds per minute, inspectors don’t have enough time to adequately inspect carcasses, says McKelvey.

“At 175 birds a minute, no one can see everything about that chicken,” McKelvey said in an interview with Food Safety News. “Now you tell me how they’re going to inspect their bird in a third of a second. It’s impossible to see it.”

Another thing it’s impossible to see, legally, under HIMP is the inside of the bird, if you’re a federal inspector. Only company inspectors can look at the front and inside of the bird.

“You’ll see a lot of fecal matter on the wings and different areas of the bird where it’s splattered, but a lot of the times you’ll smell something real strong and there’ll just be gobs of it inside,” says McKelvey. Following HIMP, it’s up to company employees to spot this internal fecal matter.

“The company’s supposed to look for everything that we were looking for when we were sitting there,” explains McKelvey.

FSIS has a different take on the success of HIMP, saying that overall it has produced improvements in poultry safety.

“It’s important that we have a good, public dialogue about this issue, but we wouldn’t be moving forward with anything we didn’t think was about safer food and safer consumers,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, in an interview with Food Safety News in April.

“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 Hagen. “When it comes to contamination across the board, the HIMP plants are performing at a superior level.”

Dr. Richard Raymond, former Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, says the focus needs to be taken away from examining a bird’s appearance on the line and put instead on pathogen loads.

“If the number of fractured wings and legs actually increased when HIMP was implemented, as is implied here, that is a quality concern for the company, not a food safety concern for consumers,” said Raymond in an emailed statement to Food Safety News.

“These inspectors need to be off-line where they can do more to reduce the pathogen loads, and the company needs to be doing their own quality control,” Raymond continued.

McKenley hopes FSIS will pay attention to petition to her call and reconsider standardizing HIMP.

“I’m hoping this will stop them from going to HIMP nationwide,” she said.

McKelvey’s petition had 174,460 signatures as of Thursday night. She hopes to reach 200,000, and aims to take her petition to Washington D.C. next week.


© Food Safety News
  • I’m concerned about the workers in these plants, and by extension food safety. Increasing the speed of the line from 140 to 175 birds/min. makes a dangerous job that much more dangerous. The workers (often undocumented and lacking access to social supports like health care) are tasked with disassembling the birds as they go by. Workplace injuries include severe knife injuries and severed fingers. 

    Obviously, more workplace injuries and more pressure on company employees is not good for food safety. Here is a documentary that gives us a look into poultry processing from the standpoint of the worker (skip to the 17:00 min mark for the poultry plant): http://vimeo.com/41172333

    • doc_raymond

      MICHAEL, the workers being discussed in this post do NOT disassemble the birds. Instead, they get 0.4 seconds to look for broken wings and legs, not looking for the invisible pathogens that can make us sick.
      Of course Ms. McKelvey is opposed. This will force FSIS line inspectors to receive training and pass testing to move to a better position, that of one looking off-line for contamination while the company pays its own employees to do quality control.  These regs have been in place since President Eisenhower signed the Poultry Products Inspection Act into law in 1957. Time to get into the 21st century and not simply retain workers in a system that does not need them, at least not where they are sitting today and watching a bird fly by every 0.4 seconds.   

      • Am I mistaken in assuming that increasing the line speed will affect all the workers (including the disassemblers)? Or is the line speed going to stay the same through most of the process and just speed up at the end for inspections?

        I think I know the answer to this, and it would mean my original comment remains relevant.

        • doc_raymond

          No to this discussion about HIMP. Don’t try and confuse the readers. This is about inspection and quality control, and who is paying for it, not cutting up0 meat by the company.

          • Michael Bulger

            Richard, you’re becoming insufferable on this website. The only thing worse than your consistent misspelling and poor grammar is your inability to play well with others or mind your own business. 

            Your harassment is reminiscent of the old “Doc Mudd”.. but without the literary proficiency.

            The readers will understand the relevance that increasing line speeds has on the possibility of contamination. And they will be better off for considering the human impact that this program has on poultry processing. Food safety doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. It is foolish to dismiss the effects of increased line speeds on worker safety, because worker safety is directly related to food safety. 

        • Pro_Headhunter

           You are grossly overestimating your own relevance.

          We get that a lot from yappy college students. The intelligent ones quickly mature out of it. We use that as a convenient screening mechanism when we are hiring scientists. Pop science activist front groups eagerly employ the others. Just so you know you aren’t being discriminated against…merely sorted by aptitude.

          • Uncalled for comment. Agree or not, we don’t need drive by slams from people who don’t have the courage to attach their name to their comments. 

            You took the discussion and you tanked it. The only positive impact is that Michael’s comment is even better in comparison. 

      • Doc Raymond, anyone who disagrees with you seems to always have a hidden agenda and some petty selfish reasons for their differing viewpoint. Why is that, do you think?

        I’m going to side with the person who was in an inspection position for 44 years, and who has had experience with HIMP. 

        I’ll take the boots on the ground any day over the desk jockey. 

        • doc_raymond

          Why is that you ask? And I will answer.
          Because we spent 3 years putting together a better in spection system for processed meats, and the union blocked implementation with Congresswoman Delauro’s help. They were worried that a few jobs out of the 6,500 might be lost, so food safety did not improve by going to a risk based system and the thousands of dollars spent on the effort went down the drain. 

          • Doctor Raymond, I can appreciate the hard work that went into the risk-based inspection system while you were still Under Secretary. And though I am not an expert on the strengths and weaknesses of such a system, others who are experts expressed concerns about the system–not the least of which were concerns about the data gathering capability and systems necessary for such a system.

            Among all of the concerns I’ve seen expressed, none have been about saving union jobs.  

            At the time, as now, the majority of consumers were against such a system. Now you can curse the ignorance of consumers, and rant on about the perfidy of those who would oppose such _scientific_ solutions, but the real issue is that a risk-based system is highly dependent on an almost flawless data gathering and reporting system, and people ensuring that the system works at peak efficiency and accuracy, and the USDA just did not have such a system in place in 2007. 

            Yes, there was an issue was about insufficient training of personnel, but that was only part of the overall problem. The real issue was the data. 

            The push back you experienced wasn’t really about union jobs or one politician trying to save a few hundred jobs. It was about data. Lack of data, and lack of reliable data systems, and inspectors inadequately trained to ensure adequate data. 

          • The number of beef recalls at the time, including the infamous Topps recall, didn’t help generate enthusiasm for fewer inspections, either. 

  • I’ve never worked a HIMP plant but did sit on a poultry line for several years as a USDA inspector. I think that the plant can do most of what we were doing and could save our hands from carpal tunnel which damaged my hands. This could also save the government a lot of health claims for subjecting inspectors to rigid repetitive work which caused me so many health and emotional problems. Some were’nt affected as much as me but their physical bodies sure felt the pain. If USDA would help inspectors to change the way online hand motions that go along with the visual inspection of carcasses then I would agree with keeping inspectors on the line but they will not so I say yes take inspectors away from performing quality control type physically demanding tasks and put them in more of a scientific role of testing and verifying establishment controls. People do not realize how hard it is to be an online slaughter chicken and beef  inspector and those who have been there and promote out of it don’t care after they leave to ever see one of those terrible slaughter places again.

  • husna

    How many of these employees in the industry are trained in Quality Control for the poultry inspection plants? Inspection of meat can only be adequately performed by an individual trained in Food Microbiology and Quality control for the specific industry.  Can FSIS ensure that every one of the US poultry plants will train their employees in these two arenas?  I have never worked in a poultry plant, but can tell that these individuals working the lines in the plant have no training in the arena.

    As for implementing HIMP, there is a definite chance of seeing an increase in food borne illnesses in the next 14 years if the birds are not properly inspected. For Kosher meat, the rabbi inspects the inside of the bird to look for adhesions in the lungs, and discards the bird, if found any. That maybe for a religious reason, but how many times has a person fallen sick eating Kosher meat?

    Hope the analogy to Kosher meat inspection will get my point across. I agree with the inspector here as it is critical to inspect the inside of the bird to make sure that dangerous pathogens of public health concern are not lurking in there.

    MS Food Science

  • Consumers need to demand more from a government agency whose
    primary purpose is to protect the public’s health. Increasing the probability
    of bad chicken making it through the inspection process is irresponsible.

    We have a system of regulations and protections in place so
    our society can be protected from harms that are too big for any individual to
    prevent. When our regulators renege on their responsibilities to protect the
    public, something must be done to reinvigorate the mission and purpose of
    regulations and those who are to carry them out.

    • And then there was Topps. That certainly didn’t help.