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May 2nd, 2014

FSIS’s Fantasy World

By Tony Corbo

Today, officials from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are escorting a congressional delegation on tours of two poultry slaughter and processing facilities in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia operated by George’s Chicken. One is a plant that receives traditional inspection with a full complement of USDA inspectors and the other is a pilot plant that has been using the privatized inspection scheme called the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) where most of the on-line inspection is turned over to company employees called “sorters” to perform.

FSIS has conducted dozens of tours at these two plants over the past decade. Over the years, we have heard about the extraordinary preparations that the George’s HIMP plant in Edinburg, Virginia, has undertaken for these “VIP” tours. Walls have been scrubbed and even repainted; floors have been meticulously cleaned; and the speeds of the slaughter lines have been reduced. Two years ago, I told FSIS agency officials that they have conducted so many tours of that plant that the new AAA Tour Book for Virginia lists the Edinburg HIMP plant as a must-see tourist stop and to call FSIS to make reservations for the “Fantasy Tour.”

In the past, whenever congressional staff, White House staff, consumer representatives or other prospective visitors have asked to visit HIMP plants other than the George’s Edinburg facility, FSIS has balked. That is because the Edinburg plant is the so-called “showcase” plant.  It is immaculate on the inside, FSIS can easily control the tour, access to the plant workers is restricted, and no one is able to look at the plant’s production or safety records to see if there have been any past problems. Fortunately, when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted its study of HIMP in 2013, the analysts were able to visit several different HIMP plants and concluded that since the data was lacking, FSIS could not make the claims that poultry slaughtered in HIMP plants was safer than the product that received traditional inspection.

But the “showcase” plant may not be as perfect as FSIS would have everyone believe.  During a December 2013 tour of the plant in which FSIS Administrator Alfred Almanza escorted a group of congressional staff, an incident occurred on the slaughter line that caught the attention of one of the congressional staffers who happened to be a veterinarian.

That congressional staffer reported to me that one of the company sorters spotted a problem with one of the carcasses she was responsible for inspecting. The slaughter line was operating too fast for her to deal with the issue at her workstation, so she chased the problem carcass down the slaughter line to try to catch up with it. In the meantime, multiple carcasses passed her workstation that received no inspection. The congressional staffer leaned over to Mr. Almanza and said, “That was not supposed to happen, was it?” Mr. Almanza’s response was, “Yeah, they should have stopped the line.” Really, Al? Do you actually believe that a company employee would ask that the line be stopped so that production is interrupted? You must truly live in a fantasy world.

But the problems with the George’s HIMP plant do not end there. It seems that the plant has been guilty of polluting a local stream. Between August and November 2012, the plant was cited multiple times by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for excessive discharges of ammonia, oil, phosphorus and nitrogen into Stony Creek that is part of the Shenandoah River sub basin and the Potomac River Basin. The company was fined $13,700 in addition to being forced to install new equipment to prevent future discharges from occurring.

When FSIS proposed its rule to expand the HIMP model to all poultry slaughter facilities, the agency excluded itself from preparing an environmental impact statement claiming that increasing the line speeds in the plants would make poultry slaughter more efficient and thus would not lead to increased pollution (full proposed rule here). While the George’s plant is only one example, we suspect that by expanding HIMP to some 200 poultry slaughter plants will have a detrimental environmental impact in those communities where these plants are located. Again, the FSIS seems to be operating in a Fantasy World.

Join us in telling President Obama and Secretary Vilsack to abandon their “Filthy Chicken Rule.”

2 Comments on FSIS’s Fantasy World

  1. el viudo says:

    After being a USDA inspector for over 20 years, let me offer my perspective on the issue. I marvel at all those who weigh in on the discussion who never worked a day in a chicken plant. The true fantasy world Mr. Corbo rails against is inhabited by the supporters of the current poultry inspection system. Under the current system a USDA inspector sees 35 birds per minute. That means that an inspector has less than 2 seconds to make a disposition on the carcass. The Meyn system used by many plants has the viscera separate from the carcass. They are presented in a tray immediately in front of the carcass. The inspector has to simultaneously view the carcass, the viscera, make a disposition, and give the trimmer salvage instructions, if required. All in less than two seconds before the clock is reset by the arrival of the next carcass. We cannot determine in that time if the carcass contains pathology ( Salmonella, campylobacter, et cetera).
    Many of the defects that are trimmed are feathers, bruises, and broken bones. These are not public safety issues.

    Do the lines run to fast for effective USDA inspection? Of course they do. But that’s above my pay grade. Does Industry consistently run effective salvage operations? I’ll just say that there is considerable room for improvement.

    The observation has been made that FSIS has not proven that the HIMP program produces a safer product that the afore-mentioned current system. Fair enough. But there has been no data that says that HIMP is qualitatively inferior to the current system, either.

    Comparative data can be misleading. Under the current system, Poultry Product Standards tests are conducted twice per shift per line. There are holes in the CUSUM big enough to drive a truck through. HIMP tests once per hour per line, or 4X as many tests as currently. Also, the HIMP standards are significantly tougher.

    In closing, let me state categorically that I am neither an apologist for the duplicity of FSIS, nor am I a shill for Industry. I have, however, actually worked in chicken plants. This is something that that most of the commentators cannot claim.

    Now, cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war.

    • aghosh says:

      Response from Tony Corbo:
      Thank you for your comments. I would like, for the record, inform you
      that I tried twice to work in a chicken plant so that I could experience
      myself what it was like. Both times I was rejected. Here is a blog that
      I posted in 2012 describing my attempt to get hired as a plant worker
      (http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/blogs/i-did-not-get-the-job/). The
      second time I tried, I applied to be a “temporary inspector” in 2012 so
      that I could work in a chicken plant. I was rejected as being too
      qualified. As you can see from my bio, I hold a masters degree from
      Cornell University. When I told then-Under Secretary for Food Safety
      Elisabeth Hagen, a Harvard Medical School graduate, of my rejection, I
      told her that an Ivy League School education wasn’t all it was cracked up
      to be. I also want to let you know that when the agency wanted to take
      some consumer group representatives on tours of the George’s Chicken
      plants in Virginia, I was specifically excluded. What do they have to
      hide? I hope that this give you some additional perspective on my very
      jaundiced view of the current leadership at FSIS.

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