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October 29th, 2013

Even the Industry Cannot Stand the Stench

By Tony Corbo

It is pretty rare when the editor of a major meat industry publication and Food & Water Watch can agree on an issue. But I am here to report that we have. After being away from the office for a week, I picked up my mail that had accumulated and started to go through it. Among the pieces in the pile was the October edition of MeatingPlace magazine, a publication that promotes the domestic meat industry. I find the publication useful since it helps me understand viewpoints from the meat industry. The articles are usually very well-written. What caught my attention this month, however, was a very critical editorial entitled, “Plague,” written by MeatingPlace editor Lisa Keefe.

That editorial was about the privatized inspection model that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has been piloting in five swine slaughter plants. It is similar to the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), the privatized inspection model that FSIS has been operating in 20-young chicken and 5-young turkey plants. Food & Water Watch has been critical of all of these pilots since it has been FSIS’ intention to expand them to all meat and poultry plants. The ultimate goal is to dramatically reduce the number of FSIS inspectors in these plants by turning over their responsibilities to company-paid employees to perform. We have issued press releases and posted blogs about this in the past. We have argued that the agency does not have the scientific basis to continue these pilots much less expand their scope even though it has been experimenting with them for nearly 15 years. Both the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released reports that found flaws in the pilots, and in the case of the swine slaughter pilot, both independent watchdog agencies remarked that FSIS had not even made the effort to evaluate the effectiveness of the HIMP model to determine whether it improved food safety over plants that are staffed with the full complement of government inspectors. In fact, the OIG found that the number of food safety violations found in the HIMP swine slaughter plants far exceeded those found in plants that received conventional inspection.

The pilots have received the full blessing of the meat industry and that it is what makes Ms. Keefe’s editorial so remarkable. She states:

“There’s plenty of blame to go around in the 15-year-long swine HIMP pilot program…so I’ll just say it: A plague on both FSIS and the industry. In recent audit reports from the OIG and GAO, the agency looks like it has no idea what it’s doing and the industry looks like it’s co-opted the regulators. Just as the activists accuse the industry of doing.…{T}he whole program looks like a 15-year-long wink-wink nudge-nudge fest.”

 Ms. Keefe goes on in her editorial to critique the defense that certain key FSIS officials have made regarding the OIG and GAO reports describing it as “pretzel logic.” Very strong language.

 What Ms. Keefe left out in her editorial was the fact that FSIS has used the unevaluated HIMP model in swine slaughter as the basis to grant equivalency status to foreign countries that have privatized their inspection programs for meat exports to the U.S. Canada, Australia and New Zealand have all received the green light to export some or all of their red meat products using a privatized inspection where most inspection duties are turned over to company-paid employees to perform.

 We have repeatedly asked USDA Secretary Vilsack to revoke those equivalency determinations because the HIMP model in swine slaughter seems to be flawed. The most recent letter we sent was last week when we revealed that the European Union seems to have rejected the Australian privatized meat inspection model due to the apparent conflict of interest of having company-paid employees inspect meat for its safety and wholesomeness. In its zeal to privatize inspection here in the U.S., FSIS may have created a trade crisis by hastily approving its ill-conceived program abroad. It’s time to revoke those equivalency determinations before there is a major international food safety incident.

Finally, I would like to thank Lisa Keefe for her candor and tough-talk. I could not have said it any better and coming from her, I sincerely hope that key industry leaders and the top-brass at USDA are paying attention.

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