A proposal to reform poultry inspection that would shift quality and deflect oversight away from U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors toward the companies processing the birds has come under heavy criticism by Washington, DC-based Food & Water Watch. On Thursday, the debate spilled over into an agriculture appropriations hearing in the House.

chickentests-iphone.jpgUSDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for examining all poultry carcasses for blemishes or visible defects before they are further processed. Under the proposed rule, the agency would hand this over to the poultry plant in order to devote more FSIS inspectors to evaluating the company’s pathogen-prevention plans and bacteria-testing programs.

The HACCP Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), which is voluntary, moves inspectors down the line — to right before the chiller — to make sure there’s no fecal material on the birds, or no other food safety defects, before they take the plunge into the cooling bath.

According to a peer-reviewed risk assessment, HIMP would save FSIS $85- to $95 million over the next three years and be a $250 million boost to poultry companies, which will be able to crank up line speeds and process birds at a faster pace, all while reducing 5,200 poultry-caused illnesses each year. The plan is aimed at improving food safety, but some consumer groups are skeptical about the initiative.

On the eve of a House appropriations subcommittee meeting on FSIS’ budget, Food & Water Watch released its analysis of over 5,000 documents, received under a Freedom of Information Act request, that shows company inspectors routinely miss defects at plants currently operating under the HIMP pilot.

FWW said they found that company employees often miss quality defects like “feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass.”

Their analysis found that the average error rate for these types of defect in chicken slaughter facilities was 64 percent and 87 percent in turkey slaughter facilities.  And for one turkey slaughter facility, nearly 100 percent of samples found this category of defect. FWW also found that the vast majority of non-compliance records filed for the 14 plants under the pilot was for “fecal contamination found on the carcasses.” Out of 229 NRs filed from March to August 2011, 208 (90 percent) were for visible fecal contamination that was missed by company employees.

“Based on the data coming out of the plants where this privatized inspection scheme is already in place, it is unacceptable for USDA to try to expand this program to more plants,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of FWW.

During the appropriations hearing, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) questioned Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen about the proposed rule.  

“I really am concerned about this transition to HIMP,” said DeLauro. “I’m trying to get some sense of what this means … because the descriptions from some of the inspectors already looking at what’s happening and not happening, and I can get that to you, about what they’re finding: fecal matter, and this is prior to going to the the chiller… what they’re finding feathers, bile, etc. is pretty gross.”

Hagen insisted that FSIS is simply trying to modernize an outdated and inefficient poultry inspection system to lower the incidence of foodborne illness.

“This rule is about food safety and it’s about modernizing,” she said. “The commitment I made when I came into this job was that we would look at the way we do things and we would find ways to do things better than we have done before. And that’s what this is about. It’s about safer food for consumers.”

DeLauro asked how the agency estimated the rule would prevent 5,200 illnesses.

“That figure comes from the risk assessment itself,” said Hagen. “When we looked at this rule we looked at it from a commonsense standpoint: having people focused on the things that matter most in food safety in 2012. We looked at our experience with the HIMP model in which we have plants performing better than they’re performing in the non-HIMP style, in terms of contamination rate and meaningful performance standards.”

The data was used to project a public health impact and it was estimated the rule would prevent 5,200 illnesses annually. Hagen said about 1,000 of those illnesses would be caused by Salmonella and 1,000 by Campylobacter.

Regarding concerns about increasing line speeds at processing plants, Hagen noted that FSIS is going outside its statutory mission to also look at the rule’s impact on worker safety.

“Our first concern is food safety. If we have the opportunity to modernize the system and produce a safer product, we will do that, but we are concerned about unintended consequences that might occur because of this modernization. That’s why we’ve partnered with NIOSH [The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health], we’ve been in discussion with OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]. We’re going to take these findings very seriously.”