One Hormel facility, a subsidiary location and a third-party contractor are participating in the USDA's swine Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP)-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) pilot program, said Rick Williamson, manager of external communications.
“In addition to the USDA inspectors at the facility, there are Hormel Foods employees trained to the standards of the USDA conducting the additional inspections,” Williamson said. “We’ve found this allows the USDA inspectors better perspective and more flexibility to monitor activity and identify any issues.”
But the Food Integrity Campaign alleges inspections at the plants are inadequate. The swine HIMP program began in 1997, and allowed five large plants to have faster line speeds with fewer Food Safety and Inspection Service line inspectors.
“Whistleblowers at these pilot hog plants have revealed serious food safety and quality concerns,” the group said in its petition.
In addition to the Hormel petition, the Food Integrity Campaign posted online affidavits from four USDA hog inspectors who cited lack of training and proper oversight, and faster line speeds as problems affecting the swine HIMP program. The Food Integrity Campaign redacted some information in the affidavits.
One inspector, a 23-year veteran, noted line speeds of 1,300 hogs per hour. Line speeds at the plant previously were 1,000 hogs an hour. The slaughter capacity at the plant is 19,000 hogs per day.
"It's impossible to see any defects now," the inspector said in the affidavit. "We used to stop the line for bile contamination, chronic pleuritis, hair/toenails/scurf and have these defects trimmed/removed, under HIMP these are considered "Other Consumer Protections" and we are no longer allowed to stop the line so they may be removed."
In another affidavit, an unidentified USDA inspector said that, in general, HIMP is not a bad idea. The inspector said that industry should pay for inspections because they profit from inspection, which is "sort of what happens under HIMP."
"The plant employees are now paid to inspect the product while the USDA is still available to act as a watchdog and make sure the plant workers are doing their tasks correctly," the affidavit said. "However, when USDA loses the authority to make plant employees engage in corrective actions, the program stops working. This is what has happened at the plant where I work."
Yet another inspector said lack of training was evident at the plant where the inspector worked.
"In my experience, we didn't get any special training before we started inspecting under HIMP", the inspector said in the affidavit. "If this comes to be the case, then USDA staff would no longer have the expertise to verify whether plant inspectors were doing an adequate job."
The allegations in the affidavits did not concur with what Hormel says really goes on in the company’s processing facilities. Williamson said employees do have the ability to stop the line if an issue is detected. He added that based on the company’s experience, “Oversight is more efficient and more effective in plants participating in the HIMP program.”
“The HIMP program places more accountability on the company, and we welcome that responsibility. The safety of our consumers and employees is paramount in everything we do,” he said.
Williamson added that USDA protocols require periodic sampling for microorganisms of concern, which is the true measure of an establishment’s performance.
“Our facilities consistently meet or perform better than published USDA microbiological performance standards,” he said.