Too many repeat violations are occurring at federally inspected pig slaughter plants, and the problem lies with inadequate enforcement, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General. The IG‘s conclusion is found in a recently released audit report on USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) inspection and enforcement activities at the nation’s swine slaughter plants. “FSIS’ enforcement policies do not deter swine slaughter plants from becoming repeat violators of food safety regulations,” the IG report says. During a three-year period ending with 2011, the IG said FSIS issued 44,128 noncompliance records (NRs), but only 28 of the nation’s 616 swine plants ever faced suspension. NRs are citations for violations of sanitation regulations. “Mission-critical” violations are suppose to be entered into the FSIS monitoring system known as the Public Health Information System (PHIS) and subject to more aggressive enforcement by district offices. From issuing NRs, inspectors in swine slaughter plants are charged with taking regulatory control with such actions as retaining product, rejecting equipment or facilities and slowing or stopping the lines to take immediate corrective action. Following regulatory control, FSIS district offices are empowered to suspend, withhold the mark of inspection or even withdraw inspectors from the plant. But the IG says suspensions are rare and in the four-year scope of its investigation, no withholding or withdrawing actions were ever taken. “For the few plants that were suspended, the suspensions only briefly interrupted plant activity,” says the IG report. The audit found that even when a pattern of NRs were linked by the PHIS and the number of repeat violations were high, FSIS officials “did not feel a need to pursue progressively stronger enforcement action” if there was no immediate public health risk. “We disagree with this practice because the plants repeated the same serious violations with little or no consequence,” the IG report says. Examples cited included:

  • A South Carolina plant that slaughtered 2,700 swine per day with violations that included 43 NRs for pests, such as cockroaches, on the kill floor.
  • A Nebraska plant that slaughtered 10,600 swine per day with 607 NRs, including 214 repeats, among them 50 for contaminated carcasses with “fecal material which was yellow (and) fibrous.”
  • An Illinois plant that slaughters 19,500 swine per day with 532 NRs and 139, or 26 percent of them, including repeats for “fecal matter and abscesses on carcasses…”

“Since microbiological tests are performed only on a sample of carcasses (whereas visual and manual inspections are required on all carcasses), we questions whether this is a better measure for food safety due to its limited use,” the IG report says. Further, the IG says FSIS does not distinguish between serious violations and minor infractions in its NRs. It points out how an NR for a document dating error and an NR for fibrous fecal material on a carcass are now given equal weight. FSIS Administrator Al Almanza responded to the 11 recommendations from the IG largely by agreeing with them and outlining a work program for accomplishing them. For example, the IG recommends progressively stronger enforcement actions against plants with serious or repetitive violations. Almanza said the agency will take stronger enforcement actions based on Food Safety Assessments by Jan. 1, 2014. The IG also recommended that FSIS come up with a system to classify all food safety NRs, and the FSIS administrator is promising to implement such a system on PHIS, also by Jan. 1, 2014. Also getting attention in the IG report was FSIS’ pilot program, known as the HACCP Inspection Models Project (HIMP) for swine.  HIMP for swine is limited to five large plants, but the IG said three of those five plants made the top ten for NRs. “In the 15 years since the program’s inception, FSIS did not critically assess whether the new inspection process had measurably improved food safety at swine HIMP plants—a key goal of the HIMP program.” FSIS has promised a complete evaluation of the HIMP hog program by March 31, 2014. The IG’s findings on the HIMP in swine were quickly embraced by opponents of the program. Food & Water Watch said the report identified “major deficiencies” in HIMP, which it calls an ill-conceived privatization scheme. In addition to F&WW, unions representing meat inspectors oppose HIMP in both poultry and swine plants. F&WW claims FSIS has spent $141 million on the PHIS system, which still has implementation problems.