US pig inspection pilot could cut product quality, warns advocacy group and inspectors

By Ed Zwirn, in New York

- Last updated on GMT

The pilot programme has prompted crys that the meat will be of a lesser quality
The pilot programme has prompted crys that the meat will be of a lesser quality

Related tags: Meat, Pork, Livestock

A US Department of Agriculture (USDA) pilot programme is reducing the quality and safety of American pork products and will pose a significant health risk if it is rolled out to the entire US pig slaughterhouse sector, according to an advocacy group.

The Government Accountability Project, a "whistle-blower protection"​ organisation, released a report on 30 January, which says that the new inspection set-up is inadequate to cope with the increased processing volume it is intended to facilitate while trimming costs. It includes comments from meat inspectors.

Under USDA’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points pilot – (HAACP-Based Inspection Models Project - HIMP), pork plant operators take on more responsibility for carcase inspection while government inspectors verify the effectiveness of the company’s work. A similar programme has already been rolled out for US poultry plants, but is facing court challenges.

The advocacy group has also launched a petition drive urging Hormel Foods Corp, which owns three out of the five participating pig plants, to drop the pilot and return to the previous inspection regime. The group argues the pilot system will lead to contaminants remaining in food: "Say no to hair, toenails and tumours in its pork products and yes to quality meat inspection,"​ it proclaimed.

Those backing the new approach say it would save money. The proposed budget for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) would cut $4.9 million from the 2015 funding level, with much of these savings coming from cuts to USDA inspection personnel in poultry plants.

A USDA spokesperson pointed to a November 2014 evaluation showing that food safety outcomes at the pilot facilities "are on par with those operating under other inspection systems"​, at the same time cautioning that "additional analyses, including a science-based risk assessment, will be required to determine its impact on foodborne illness rates, and whether this pilot programme could be applied to additional establishments".

Eric Mittenthal, vice-president at industry group the North American Meat Institute, also pointed to the November USDA report, saying that criticism was being generated by meat inspectors concerned about job cuts: "We feel confident in this HIMP evaluation over anecdotes from inspectors who are concerned about the potential impact of HIMP and their jobs."

Joe Ferguson, a USDA inspector who retired after 23 years on the job last year, said, in one of four affidavits published by the Government Accountability Project, that line speeds at the plant in which he worked have increased to 1,300 carcases per hour, from 1,100, over the past decade.

"It’s impossible to see any defects now,"​ he said. "We used to stop the line for bile contamination, chronic pleuritis, hair/toenails/scurf and have these defects trimmed or removed. Under HIMP, these are considered ‘other consumer protections’ and we are no longer allowed to stop the line."

Other testimony in the affidavits spoke of faecal matter, "cystic kidneys"​ and "bladder stems" remaining in carcases.

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