A bipartisan group of 68 members of Congress wrote to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday, asking him to suspend action on the proposed Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule, which is based on the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP). “While we strongly support modernizing our food safety system and making it more efficient, modernization should not occur at the expense of public health, worker safety, or animal welfare,” wrote the group, led by U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Jim Moran (D-VA), Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS). The signatories asked that the agency suspend the rule in order to address various concerns, including those raised by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from August 2013. The GAO report found that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) had “not thoroughly evaluated the performance of each of the three pilot projects” because of limitations in the analysis of data from chicken plants and a lack of report on the turkey plants. GAO listed responsibility and flexibility, more focus on food safety, and potential job creation and increased production as strengths of the program. But weaknesses included training, increased line speeds that have the potential to impact food and worker safety, and a reduced ability to see potential defects. Ultimately, GAO called for FSIS to disclose to the public limitations in the information — including the cost-benefit analysis — and to continue evaluating its pilot project for young hogs “to determine whether the pilot project is meeting its purpose.” “Shouldn’t USDA be addressing these data limitations so that we better understand the implications — including on food safety — before we move forward on the rule?” asked DeLauro of Vilsack during  a House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee hearing on March 14. In a written response to a draft of the GAO report, then-Undersecretary of Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen agreed with the recommendations and stated that when USDA issues the final rule, “FSIS will present the updated analyses, including the cost-benefit analysis, in a manner that will facilitate public understanding of the information used to support the rulemaking.” At the hearing, Vilsack said he believed “that professionals at FSIS are confident in saying that there has been an increase of compliance with safety standards, equal to or fewer product safety issues in those plants than the general plants that we have and the other processes that we use, and equal to and fewer worker safety issues in those plants based on the data.” He added that the program would provide “more inspections offline where we know pathogens attach, it would require more verification of compliance with standard operating procedures and with HACCP requirements … it would require new microbiological testing and record keeping that currently doesn’t exist, and it would make strong recommendations relative to worker safety.” Another concern cited in the members’ letter sent Monday was the issue of worker safety. During the House hearing on Friday, Vilsack stated that, in terms of worker safety, there’s a difference between line speed in inspection and processing. “The processing, which is where the worker safety issues arise,” are a function of equipment, facility layout, number of lines, flock conditions, and the number of employees involved, he said. “The rule would provide that, if there are compliance problems and process problems, that we would be able to shut the process down.” Monday’s letter also questioned whether FSIS has studied the impact of the proposed rule on humane slaughter of poultry and whether it fully consulted stakeholders on the proposal.

  • John Munsell

    I think we all agree that FSIS should not perform quality inspections (looking for broken wings, torn breast skin, etc) which the company should provide. Granted. But beyond that, FSIS’ bottom line is that reducing inspection on the production line will make meat safer. FSIS piously proclaims that HIMP will free up inspectors to commence collecting microbial samples of poultry, yet fails to divulge to the public exactly what minimum & maximum incidence of sampling will be mandated by the agency at a HIMP plant. Why? Because FSIS intends to do as little testing as possible, because (1) it doesn’t desire to know the true incidence of contaminated poultry, and (2) doesn’t want to hold in its own hands conclusive proof, which would then require FSIS to implement enforcement actions, which it is loathe to do. John Munsell

  • Alvin Sewell

    In the late 90s FSIS inspectors were selected and attended food safety training at Texas A&M University. I attended the month long orientation into Food Science and took it seriously. We were indoctrinated into modern diagnostic techniques and rapid result testing for sanitation verification. None of the currently available tests were incorporated into HACCP verification by FSIS. The only diagnostic testing is after-the-fact and has done little more than propel product recalls of product that, in most cases, has already been consumed. The most drastic example of the failure of the FSIS salmonella testing program is, of course, Foster Farms. I had the hope that I, as an inspector, would be performing rapid result swab testing during sanitation inspection among many enhanced diagnostic techniques. I thought that FSIS would shift toward enhanced tools for FSIS surveillance. That never happened and is not a part of HIMP. HIMP merely hides visible evidence from inspectors along with disarming significant enforcement options during production. In one of the HIMP plants I visited, Noncompliance Records for Zero-Tolerance for Fecal Contamination were chronic and went on for weeks without an effective preventive measure on the plant’s part. This is not, by any measure, acceptable-not under the HACCP law and certainly not in the arena of logical thinking. HIMP fails to provide the measure that was incorporated in the original proposal. HIMP is a smoke and mirrors game of deception and weakened standards for consumer safety. Given the Agency’s lack of a better plan, they leave nothing on the table but the current system which has many problems. The biggest problem with the current system could be addressed through fully staffing inspection assignments. FSIS has failed to do that for many years and apparently has no intention to do so. In defense of FSIS, Congress cannot under fund FSIS then expect full performance. All parties in this issue must stop the tunnel vision agendas and get down to honest and logical modernization of inspection.

    • John Munsell

      Alvin, I so appreciate your wisdom gained from an agency insider’s perspective. Your willingness to publicly divulge historical facts should force FSIS to implement corrective actions to prevent recurrences, but I’m not holding my breath. Several OIG reports continually focus on the systemic shortcomings of FSIS-style HACCP, but FSIS resists making substantive changes. Starting with OIG’s report of its investigation of ConAgra’s 19 million lb recall in 2002, I’ve been amazed at how FSIS continues to adroitly avoid enforcement actions at plants where the agency is keenly aware of ongoing sanitation/unwholesome product environments. FSIS has the authority to intervene, even close down the production line, but typically refuses to do so. Can you enlighten us as to why the agency lacks courage at the largest slaughter establishments? John Munsell

  • Michael Fisher

    HIMP was never about improving product quality or safety. HIMP is an attempt to address the increasing cost of operating an inspection service in a time when the Agency budget no long increases to absorb that cost. It is a legitimate problem in search of a solution. What bothers me is that FSIS chose to sell HIMP to the Public as an improvement in food safety, which it is not, in preference to being honest about the underlying problem the Agency faces. There is the real smoke and mirrors. This is not the first time FSIS pursued a budget related initiative under false pretenses – remember SIS beef back in the 80s.

  • hoosiercommonsense

    If we look at the title of the proposed rule, it would seem to say that inspection and processing are going to be done in a more modern way. To me, a consumer, that title would mean more federal and state inspectors inspecting more frequently, more humane treatment for the animals, more sanitary conditions along the line. However, much like Citizens United, the title of this rule is misleading.

    This rule would make conditions less modern, and with the dearth of meat inspectors caused by Republicans and Tea Partiers in Congress, much less sanitary. More speed on the line is just a bow to the bottom line, since more chickens processed means more money for the owner.

    Factory raised meat is “public meat”, and the public has a right to a lot of input as to how it’s raised, how it’s slaughtered and how it’s processed. It’s our health that’s at stake. We, the consumers, demand transparency and accountability from this industry and from Mr. Vilsack.