Around 100 poultry inspectors gathered outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday, right under Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s window, to protest a proposal to expand an inspection system that shifts federal inspectors away from inspecting for quality defects and allows slaughter lines to speed up.

chicken-protest-350.jpgThe USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is responsible for examining all poultry carcasses for blemishes or visible defects before they are further processed. Under the proposed rule, the agency would transfer much of this quality-assurance task over to the poultry plants so that it can devote more of its employees to evaluating the companies’ pathogen-prevention plans and bacteria-testing programs.

It basically moves the federal inspector further down the line, to right before the chiller, to make sure there’s no fecal material on the birds before they take the plunge into the cooling tank.

FSIS argues that the system, formally known as the HACCP Based Inspection Models Project, or HIMP, will improve food safety and save taxpayer dollars. The consumer group Food & Water Watch, and the inspectors at the rally, take issue with the entire proposal, arguing that it privatizes inspection and puts consumers at risk. A handful of plants have been a part of the HIMP pilot program for 12 years.

According to a peer-reviewed risk assessment, expanding 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 an estimated 5,200 poultry-caused illnesses each year.
“Cutting the budget does not justify putting the health and safety of consumers and workers in the balance,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of FWW. “USDA inspectors receive extensive training to protect public health in poultry facilities, but there is no similar requirement for company employees to receive training before they assume these inspection responsibilities in the proposed privatized inspection system. This short-sided thinking could actually cost the federal government more to deal with a potential increase in foodborne illnesses caused by unsanitary, defective poultry and meat.”

At the protest rally, inspectors held signs that read: “Chicken Inspection Isn’t a Speed Sport,” “Don’t Play Chicken With Safety” and “Speed Kills.”

FSIS, for its part, points out that its also the private sector’s responsibility — and in the poultry companies’ interest — to keep keep carcasses with cosmetic or food safety defects out of commerce.

In a recent interview with Food Safety News, Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen pointed out that FSIS’ “extensive” HIMP assessment actually compared HIMP and non-HIMP plants, which is something FWW did not do in their analysis. 

“What company has an advantage when they put cosmetically unappealing products in the market place? None of them,” said Hagen. “There’s a lot in the report that Food & Water Watch put out that, there’s a lot of detail that I think we can respond to very easily….You could argue that our inspectors are finding things before they’re going into commerce. We’ve still got somebody looking at what’s happening in this HIMP system. It’s not as if we’ve completely eliminated that function.”
The number one concern expressed among inspectors at the rally was, without question, line speed, and the impact that would have on their ability — or anyone’s ability — to inspect the birds whizzing by.

A group of inspectors from Georgia, Florida and Mississippi, who on average have been working in poultry plants for 15 years, told Food Safety News that if line speeds jump from 140 birds per minute, with three inspectors inspecting 35 birds each per minute, to closer to 200 birds per minute, with only one USDA inspector on the line, there will be quality issues: “How much can you see in that period of time!?”

“It’s a very very bad idea,” said one inspector from Georgia. “It’s the speed and it’s the quality the public will be receiving.”

“There’s a public safety risk here,” said Clarence Douglas, an inspector from Mississippi. “The speed is a very important issue. We only have a few seconds to look at the birds. It’s already tough to inspect as it is. If you speed it up you’ll make it even more difficult.”

Thomas says he still enjoys chicken and isn’t picky about where it comes from, “but I will be if this proposal comes about. It would be a big step back.”

Dr. Hagen said that FSIS is simply trying to modernize an outdated poultry inspection system and improve food safety.

“The inspection system was designed at a time when we thought the greatest risk was diseased animals getting into the food supply. We can do better than that now. We know what we need to be focused on is looking at whether the system they’ve set up is actually doing what it’s supposed to do. What are the trends in the testing data? Are they meeting critical control points? These are things that actually make consumers safer,” said Hagen. “It’s not to say that there’s not a role for USDA to play in some of this sorting, but these are primarily marketability issues. Anybody who knows food safety and anybody who’s truly interested in moving the ball forward, would agree that we should be focused on things that actually make consumers safer.”


Photo by Helena Bottemiller

This story was updated on Apr. 3.


  • Steve

    As a member of a small farm producing poultry which is inspected under a state system of inspection in a small plant, this set of “new rules” appears to be a give away to the large poultry processors. They will now be allowed to speed up their lines creating a distinctly stronger disadvantage for those of us who produce for slow line (usually small plant) processing.
    In a normal day these high speed lines are overlooking lungs and oil glands in the birds, what’s next? And, if USDA is so adept at managing incoming “diseased” poultry, what about all of the salmonella poultry is currently carrying into and out of the plants?

  • Well putting up more inspectors will be a good idea. Although, I know it’s business and all but they should also try and see in the consumers-perspective.

  • doc raymond

    This move makes perfect sense. All the line inspectors are doing now is sorting birds for quality reasons, like broken limbs and bruising. That is the company’s responsibility. Clarence Thomas statement that “we only have a few seconds to look at the birds” says it all. Clarence, you have 35 birds per minute flying by you. That is not “seconds”, that is less than 1/2 second per bird. I would not call that an inspection. It is a glance.

  • Jerry Guadagno

    So let me get this straight; USDA wants to speed up production and get rid of the professionally trained Federal inspector? As a former USDA inspector it has always been my contention that it is the speed of the various production lines that caused most of the contamination problems whether beef, hogs, sheep, or poultry.
    Is this another pay-off similar to Hagan’s textured beef slime issue?

  • Randy Ortiz

    Another accusation of payoff at the USDA! Got anything to back up that charge Jerry? Is that why you are a “former” USDA inspector? Did you finally get that one juicy payoff akin to winning a lottery? We are lucky your status is “former” — we don’t need so many skulking anti-agriculture scabs infiltrating the USDA.

    • Randy you must be a poultry producer and love Obama and this so called Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s.  He needs to be fired he is doing what Obama told him to do bunch of crap.

  • DB

    Dr. Hagan along with the Management of FSIS forgets that animals get sick. Who wants to eat an infected chicken/turkey carcass? Even though it might not make you very sick, it still has higher loads of bacteria. If the internal organs are infected, who would want to eat that bird at your family table? If there’s intestinal tumors, infections in the chest cavity, kidney failure resulting in the buildup of fluids impacting the heart, which under this new rule the USDA Inspector would not see any of these organs, (just the carcass, which would look unaffected) why would I expect the American public to accept this rationality to eat this sick animal? The Meat and Poultry Regulations enacted as a result of the uproar by the book “The Jungle” specifically addresses these very issues, and FSIS wants to reverse 110 years of Federal Meat Inspection.

  • Julie

    What about air-sacculitis, I.P. leukosis, and septicemia? Who is going to be looking for this? Plant employees have no clue. They are un-trained. It is an insult to all inspectors to say that the only thing that they are looking for are scabs or blemishes. It is a lot more involved than that. Maybe the Secretary of Agriculture would like to stand at the end of that line and see how much is being missed.

  • chris

    As you read the artical there are some good points as well as not so good on both sides. At 35 birds a minute a TRAINED person can actually inspect the inside and outside of the carcass as well as review the associated viscera pack, let me say TRAINED one more time. Now they are proposing to increase the line speed, remove the TRAINED inspectors and replace them with UNTRAINED plant employees, wow. What is the turn over ratio with plant employees, who will train them on how to identify diseased carcasses and carcasses that are questionable or should there be to many carcasses condemned by said SORTERS, what actions will their employers take? I’ve been in the business for a few years and know the methods the establishments use to get what they want (day to day).
    At a speed of 170 birds per minute even a well trained person could not identify fecal entering the chill system. So how do the decrease the salmonella numbers……thus come the chemical interventions. Once certain chemicals are sprayed on the carcasses exiting the chillers or prior to further processing, thus lowering the count of bacteria to acceptable levels. Once that system goes down the bacteria count sky rockets!!! My concern is if these chemicals reduce the count that much what are they doing to our bodies? Has anyone did a study on what are the long term effects on said chemicals? Just my thoughts!!!

  • Carla Logan

    USDA has pretty much earned the trust of the American citizen, especially when it comes to inspections. We know personal interest and lower standards comes into play when you rely on private sector to regulate and inspect. Our food is a life source and there is no set price tag for it, just a reasonable one. Somethings you can not buy cheap.

  • They don’t care if someone dies from salmonella the government will fix so no one can sue them anyway just like what will happen on this menigitis scandal per government lack of inspectors overseeing and looking the other way.