WASHINGTON – Several consumer groups said data they secured last fall shows that plants in the “New Swine Inspection System” (NSIS) pilot project had significantly more regulatory violations for fecal and digestive matter on carcasses than traditional plants. But the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) recently challenged the groups’ interpretation of that data.

“Food and Water Watch’s analysis of the statistics on FS-2 violations between HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) establishments and traditional establishments is fundamentally flawed and shows they do not understand the basic tasks required of FSIS inspectors in both traditional and NSIS facilities,” said Sarah Little, communications director at NAMI.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture posted the final rule in September 2019. The agency has said the NSIS improves the effectiveness of hog slaughter, makes better use of FSIS resources and enables industry innovation by establishing maximum line speeds while allowing processors to reconfigure evisceration lines.

But the NSIS rules are the focus of several lawsuits that argue the NSIS is a threat to food safety and public health by lifting limits on processing line speeds and reducing the number of federal meat inspectors from processing lines. Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, and Humane Farming Association are plaintiffs in one such lawsuit which was amended to include the new data that shows processing plants participating in the pilot program had higher rates of contamination compared to traditional processing plants.

“From 2014 to 2017, plants in the ‘New Swine Inspection System’ (NSIS) pilot project had on average nearly double the violations than comparably-sized plants outside the program,” Center for Food Safety said. “Model plants were almost twice as likely to be cited for contamination.

“The plants’ higher violations and violation rates were for the agency’s ‘FS-2’ food-safety standard for fecal matter, digestive contents (or ‘ingesta’), and milk,” the organization said. “These substances can contain human pathogens, like potentially deadly Salmonella, which the agency has estimated is responsible for 69,000 people getting sick from eating pork each year. Because of its seriousness, the agency has zero tolerance for FS-2 violations, meaning that no carcass contamination is acceptable.”

But HIMP plants have more “inspection tasks” than traditional plants, NAMI said, and facilities must comply with additional regulations in order to participate in the pilot program. In a HIMP plant, for example, FS-2 inspection tasks require the inspector to look at 24 carcasses. In a traditional plant, 12 carcasses are inspected.

“Statistically, if you are performing an offline inspection task for FS-2 violations looking at 24 carcasses, you are likely to find more violations,” NAMI said.

Also, processing plants are highly customized making it difficult to compare facilities to each other. NAMI noted that a better use of the data would be an analysis of one plant over time.

“For example: one ‘non-compliance’ can draw three citations of regulation, but another inspector may decide to only issue one citation of regulation for the same violation,” NAMI said. “It is better to look at the trends in a plant to know if there is a problem with food safety or if maybe the inspector or a plant worker needs additional training. Sudden spikes in this data would merit further scrutiny.”

FSIS inspectors inspect for FS-2 violations at a HIMP plants and at traditional plants. In each system, NAMI said, an off-line inspector must conduct these tasks at least once. Plant employees are not allowed to conduct this inspection. Plant employees may sort carcasses prior to an FSIS inspector looking at them, but only to remove a carcass from the food supply. The FSIS inspector has the ultimate authority and must inspect every carcass.