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Whistleblower Tour at American University Focuses on Poultry Safety

Alison Glick, March 29, 2013

“There are nightmares out there.”Phyllis

That’s what a retired USDA poultry inspector with 44 years of experience told an audience at American University’s Washington College of Law about the current chicken inspection pilot program that may soon expand nationwide. The program, known by its acronym HIMP, allows inspectors only 1/3 of a second to inspect each bird, and limits access to seeing and touching the carcass.

On March 20, Phyllis McKelvey made her first appearance as part of the American Whistleblower Tour at the AU event, with GAP President and Washington College of Law alumnus Louis Clark moderating. McKelvey, who came out of retirement in 2010 to speak out against the dangers of the HIMP program, made her concerns clear as a mother, grandmother of eight, and great-grandmother of one. The speeding up of chicken processing lines over the years has resulted in food safety standards being sacrificed in return for more birds and higher profits. Inspectors can no longer handle the birds and inspect the cavities where signs of disease, infections, and feces are usually identified.

The speed pressure has also impacted worker safety, resulting in injuries. Exacerbating this is the fact that the industry is heavily populated by undocumented immigrant workers who are afraid to speak out about problems or report injuries. Even citizen employees feel intimidated about speaking out – many have told McKelvey that she’s “doing what other people want to do but couldn’t because they’re afraid for their jobs.”

When HIMP was implemented and Phyllis and other inspectors began issuing reports flagging concerns, their access to the chickens being processed was physically limited to reduce the number of “negative” reports.

“Washington, DC wants pretty reports,” McKelvey said, referring to the USDA, the federal government agency whose brainchild HIMP is.

Late last year McKelvey started a petition on Change.org to stop HIMP from being fully implemented, and garnered some 180,000 signatures in the process. Sign her petition here. McKelvey has worked with GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign to shine light on this dangerous and worrisome program.

Summing up her whistleblowing, McKelvey said, “It is my duty as an American citizen, as a mother, a grandmother and a taxpayer to speak up to ensure we have safe food.” She urged students to do the same when they see a problem in the workplace, alerting supervisors first but then going beyond if necessary to resolve issues.

Watch highlights from the discussion here:

Alison Glick is Education Coordinator for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.