By Helen Bottemiller
The comment period for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposal to expand the HACCP Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) closed on Tuesday with strong support from the chicken and turkey industries and more strong criticism from federal poultry inspectors.
Both the National Chicken Council and the National Turkey Federation filed comments in favor of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) rule, which would expand the HIMP pilot beyond the 20 poultry plants already operating under the program.
"The National Chicken Council (NCC) and our members believe a statistically valid, scientifically-based approach to poultry processing will improve food safety and better protect public health," said NCC in their comment filed online Tuesday.
The HIMP model, which has been utilized in 25 chicken and poultry plants since 1998, reduces the number of FSIS inspectors on duty and largely turns over physical inspections to company employees, while allowing plants to speed up their lines to 175 birds per minute, over the current 140 bpm limit. FSIS says expanding HIMP would modernize an outdated inspection system, save taxpayers around $90 million over three years, and prevent 5,200 foodborne illnesses, mostly from Salmonella, annually
In their comments, NCC called HIMP a "successful pilot program" and said the industry could safely handle faster line speeds: "We are confident the increased line speeds allowed under the proposed rule have been demonstrated over several years to be safe for workers in the broiler chicken industry."
The National Turkey Federation also strongly supported HIMP in its comments posted on regulations.gov on Tuesday, calling the inspection scheme "the logical next step in modernization of the nation's food safety system."
"The proposed rule is a modern, sensible approach that will allow the food safety inspectors to focus on public health," NTF President Joel Brandenberger said. "The proposed rule will lead to a revamped inspection system that allows the federal inspectors to shift to prevention-oriented inspection systems and redeploy its resources in a manner that better protects the public from foodborne diseases."
The USDA also estimates that the modernization plan would save the poultry industries $250 million annually, by allowing them to speed up their processing lines.
But union representing federal food safety inspectors, Food & Water Watch, and the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a whistleblower group, have all been extremely critical of HIMP and have helped organize opposition, including the release of documents and affidavits from inspectors that they believe illustrate major flaws in the model.
GAP's Food Integrity Campaign on Tuesday released more affidavits criticizing HIMP.
"In total, six federal inspectors with HIMP-plant experience have come forward at risk to their professional lives," said Amanda Hitt, director of GAP's Food Integrity Campaign (FIC). "That's a huge number, considering the HIMP pilot is only in a few plants - there's not that many federal inspectors who have this kind of firsthand knowledge."
In the latest round of affidavits, inspectors allege that they are "made incapable of, or discouraged from, holding the plants accountable for contaminated poultry," according to GAP. "One whistleblower said the inspectors were told by their USDA supervisor to 'give [plants] a break' for violations, seemingly so that the plants with high violation numbers wouldn't be removed from the HIMP program. Another whistleblower pointed out that even if they are able to detect problems amidst breakneck line speeds during 'Carcass Inspection,' inspectors at his/her plant are not permitted to stop the line."
The documents also allege that a greater number of contaminated and diseased birds enter the chiller tanks, potentially infecting the water and other carcasses.
In "Affidavit #5" obtained by GAP, one inspector said, "When I worked for poultry plants we were continually told to let things like routine sanitation and cleanliness slide for the sake of the continual operation of the production line. We were told to keep the line going almost at any cost, and even bird carcasses with fecal contamination (which may contain E. coli or other dangerous bacteria) were passed down the production line, potentially infecting wash stations and chillers."
FSIS data, on the other hand, shows that HIMP plants outperform traditional poultry plants when it comes to food safety and quality.
"Bottom line here is that our experience has shown us that in these plants are not only meeting but exceeding food safety performance standards," Undersecretary for Food Safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen told Food Safety News last month. "When it comes to contamination across the board, the HIMP plants are performing at a superior level."
FSIS documents about HIMP can be found here and the rule can be viewed here.