Under this new system, there would be one USDA inspector assigned to the end of the slaughter line and another inspector off the line who would perform “food safety activities.” In broiler plants, the one remaining USDA line inspector would be responsible for evaluating up to 2.33 birds per second; in turkey slaughter facilities, the one inspector on the line is expected to inspect one turkey carcass per second. USDA originally estimated that some 800 inspector positions would be eliminated when the new system was fully implemented but argues that the new system will permit its remaining inspectors to conduct more sanitation and microbiological checks in each plant.
Up to now, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has been converting the 20 broiler and five turkey slaughter facilities that have been part of a pilot project, the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), since 1999. In September, FSIS will begin to convert 14 additional poultry slaughter plants to this new system. Most of them slaughter turkeys and will be permitted to increase their line speeds. Food & Water Watch secured a list of the 14 plants that will convert in September. Several of them raised red flags due to serious food and worker safety issues.
On August 3, 2011, a Cargill plant in Springdale, Arkansas announced a recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey products after consumers reported getting ill from eating them. It was one of the largest poultry recalls in history. The recall was expanded the next month when another 185,000 pounds of product were implicated in the outbreak. 136 consumers in 34 states reported illnesses caused by a multi-drug resistant strain of Salmonella Heidelberg.
FSIS testing prior to the outbreak revealed that turkey coming out of that plant was contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg. But because it is not considered to be an adulterant by USDA, inspectors could not prevent the contaminated product from entering the food supply. Yet FSIS is going to let this plant convert to a system with less oversight when such a basic regulatory problem has not been addressed?
Another example is the Farbest Foods turkey slaughter plant that was part of the HIMP pilot. It is located right next door to a facility slated to convert in September. When Food & Water Watch evaluated inspection records from the pilot plant in 2012, we found that it had some of the worst violations for any of the plants in the pilot program. But FSIS wants to reward this company by allowing another one of its plants to turn out defective products.
House of Raeford was the subject of a six-part series published by the Charlotte Observer in 2008 that exposed how the company did not permit its employees to receive proper medical care for injuries incurred on the job. Another House of Raeford plant in Teachey, North Carolina was also recently cited for child labor violations by the Department of Labor. Regardless, FSIS is going to permit them to be part of this new system–at even higher line speeds.
Despite recent reports of abuse of turkeys by employees following company protocols, three Butterball turkey slaughter plants appear on the list too. Investigations revealed that cutting the beaks and toes of turkey chicks without painkillers was a regular occurrence at facilities run by Butterball, as well as disposing of defective chicks by grinding them alive into compost. Incidents showing the kicking and throwing of mature turkeys at Butterball facilities have also been documented.
It also did not surprise us when we saw the Fielddale Farms broiler plant on the list. In March, we learned of a conversation between an FSIS inspector and a Fielddale plant manager where the plant manager confirmed that two Fielddale plants were scheduled for conversion – the Cornelia plant in October 2015 and their Murrayville plant in January 2016. When the FSIS inspector asked why the company wanted to convert to NPIS, the plant manager responded that the company wanted USDA inspectors off the slaughter lines because they were stopping them too frequently. The company sees NPIS as a way to increase production, with no mention of enhanced food safety as a motivating factor to convert to NPIS.
Coincidentally, the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently issued an audit that exposed serious deficiencies in FSIS policies to ensure the safety of ground turkey. Prior to proposing its rule on NPIS, FSIS began to issue regulatory waivers to provide poultry companies with incentives to conduct more of their own microbiological testing in exchange for less sampling conducted by the agency. These were known as Salmonella Initiative Program (SIP) waivers.
USDA inspectors were supposed to verify whether the companies were complying with the requirements of their waivers, including whether the companies were achieving microbiological targets. Under NPIS, poultry companies will develop their own sampling programs and set their own testing targets. In the audit report, the OIG found that some of the plants it visited that had SIP waivers had exceeded their daily Salmonella targets and neither FSIS personnel, nor the companies, took action. But despite these findings, NPIS would deregulate these plants and let them set – and conduct – their own testing program. This was an observation that the OIG also made in its audit report.
Food & Water Watch has filed a lawsuit on behalf of its members to stop this ill-conceived privatized inspection model. While a federal district court judge dismissed our lawsuit because she claimed that we did not have standing, we have appealed that decision and we are due back in court on September 22. Meanwhile, FSIS is continuing on its merry way to reward companies with past food safety, worker safety and animal welfare issues with less government regulation and oversight. It’s par-for-the-course for this mismanaged agency.