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