For Immediate Release
More USDA Inspectors Question Poultry Plan Safety as Comment Period Ends
New Concerns Raised Over Safety of Chicken, Turkey Products
WASHINGTON - Today, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is releasing several additional affidavits from federal poultry inspectors/whistleblowers, all of which challenge the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposed Modernization of Poultry Inspection System – based on the piloted poultry inspection system known as the HAACP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP). The affidavits released today raise serious concerns about the plan's potential to allow more contaminated product to reach consumers, which poses a risk to public health.
This latest action follows GAP's previous release of affidavits from three USDA inspectors who worked inside different HIMP plants and witnessed serious food safety violations. Those affidavits all illustrated that poultry carcasses speed through HIMP evisceration lines at rates faster than inspectors can monitor; that HIMP inspectors are often only allowed to see the backside of the bird; and that federal inspectors are replaced with plant workers who are powerless to speak out against their employers.
The four affidavits released today detail new shocking eyewitness accounts of HIMP plant inner workings in comparison to traditional poultry plants. Three of the affidavits are from federal poultry inspectors who work or have worked at HIMP plants, and a fourth is a USDA inspector with over 10 years' worth of experience working within the private poultry industry.
"In total, six federal inspectors with HIMP-plant experience have come forward at risk to their professional lives," stated Amanda Hitt, Director of GAP's Food Integrity Campaign (FIC). "That's a huge number, considering the HIMP pilot is only in a few plants – there's not that many federal inspectors who have this kind of firsthand knowledge."
Just some of the new concerns that these most recent affidavits raise include:
- Federal inspectors at HIMP plants are made incapable of, or discouraged from, holding the plants accountable for contaminated poultry. One whistleblower said the inspectors were told by their USDA supervisor to "give [plants] a break" for violations, seemingly so that the plants with high violation numbers wouldn’t be removed from the HIMP program. Another whistleblower pointed out that even if they are able to detect problems amidst breakneck line speeds during "Carcass Inspection," inspectors at his/her plant are not permitted to stop the line.
- A greater number of contaminated/diseased birds at HIMP plants frequently enter and potentially infect the giant vat of water known as the "chiller" that cools the bird carcasses before they are sent to the processing side of the plant, and then out for consumption.
- HIMP inspectors, being short-staffed, frequently are unable to complete all of their inspection duties, which has serious consequences for public health. For example, if there are not enough inspectors to do sanitation checks, rodents or garbage could contaminate the slaughter or production areas.
- Corporate poultry plant workers, who replace federal inspectors at HIMP plants, are consistently told to keep line speeds high or risk retaliation, and that productivity is their main responsibility – rather than ensuring food safety.
"The most recent whistleblower statements further illustrate how HIMP pilot plants have failed to keep contaminated poultry out of the food supply," added Hitt. "This is another thinly veiled deregulation scheme. The public has an expectation that the USDA is there to keep poultry safe, not to help the industry keep costs down."
All identifying information of the inspectors and the plants referred to in the affidavits have been redacted upon the requests of the inspectors. Whistleblower protections for USDA employees are extremely weak, and retaliation for exposing safety issues is commonplace. These affidavits have the full backing of GAP, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.
After the initial release of the early affidavits last month, ABC News aired an expose on the HIMP proposal, interviewing one of the inspector whistleblowers (with identity held) that came to GAP with concerns. The following day, USDA announced it would extend the public comment period by 30 days, and is accepting submissions until today, May 29, 2012.
Direct Quotes from the Affidavits
(Note: Affidavits #4, #5, and #6 are from USDA poultry inspectors who work or have worked as inspectors at HIMP plants, #7 is from a federal USDA inspector who used to work at poultry plants as a supervisor for over a decade).
- We were finding so many fecal contaminations that the rumors in the plant were that the plant was considering leaving the HIMP pilot program. It seemed like our USDA supervisor, maybe from pressure from the district office, was concerned that the plant might leave the system because we were told to combine several NRs [Noncompliance Reports] into one NR and told to “give them a break” for violations. (Affidavit #4)
- During VI [Verification Inspection], a USDA inspector will pull in ten bird samples from the production line to examine closely for diseases or adulteration every hour… I would continue to find fecal contamination on the inside of the [collected] birds, so I knew that birds that were not collected for the sample might be going down the line contaminated and out to the consumer. (Affidavit #4)
- We are stretched far too thin and as a result, many times are unable to complete the inspection tasks that we are supposed to complete or even have a bathroom break. (Affidavit #5)
- When I worked for poultry plants we were continually told to let things like routine sanitation and cleanliness slide for the sake of the continual operation of the production line. We were told to keep the line going almost at any cost, and even bird carcasses with fecal contamination (which may contain E. coli or other dangerous bacteria) were passed down the production line, potentially infecting wash stations and chillers. (Affidavit #5)
- When the bird carcasses or gizzards are at the end of the production line, they are then bathed in their respective “chillers.” The chillers sometimes have so much chlorine in them that the inspectors and workers know that the allowable limit for chlorine must be exceeded because we have eye irritations’ and breathing problems whenever we smell the chlorine. (Affidavit #5)
- One day I was on carcass inspection duty when I noticed that the plant placed a woman without any training on the viscera inspection station. The plant does not care; they will put anyone on the line with no concern for public safety. (Affidavit #5)
- When we are on CI [Carcass Inspection] duty, it is difficult to determine the wholesomeness of birds because they are going by so fast and even if we could see every bird at that speed and we detect problems, we are not permitted to stop the line. (Affidavit #6)
- OCPs [Other Consumer Protection defects] include things like ingesta, crops, excessive feathers, tumors, bruises, blisters, and other items found on carcasses … OCPs are not considered a food safety issue by the Agency, but I have seen bruises that exhibit signs of advanced bacterial development … I have seen bruises that, when cut off, ooze red, green, brown, and, when very old, black slime. These carcasses move swiftly down the production line into the chiller and out to various major wholesalers that stake their reputations on good and wholesome quality products. (Affidavit #6)
- The agency has been short-staffed for many years at various plants and there have been times we had to delay certain inspection duties until late into the shift, the next shift or even the following day. I have heard of other plants so short-staffed that they cannot complete sanitation inspection. This is a concern because, depending on the plant’s commitment to sanitation, mold, debris from the slaughter process, or even rodent issues may be present. (Affidavit #6)
- In every management and staff meeting, plant employees had it drilled into their heads that productivity and maintaining the production line was their chief responsibility, not making sure the poultry was safe to eat. In fact, we were encouraged to hide diseased or dirty chicken carcasses from the USDA inspectors in the plant and process it out to consumers. (Affidavit #7)
- We would receive bonuses for any extra yield we produced and shifts would compete against each other to produce the most meat. (Affidavit #7)
- The impression we got was that anyone who did not toe the line would be yelled at, fired, or most likely both. The workers that we supervised would be even less likely to speak out about the company’s actions. (Affidavit #7)
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The Government Accountability Project (GAP) is a 30-year-old nonprofit public interest group that promotes government and corporate accountability by advancing occupational free speech, defending whistleblowers, and empowering citizen activists. We pursue this mission through our Nuclear Safety, International Reform, Corporate Accountability, Food & Drug Safety, and Federal Employee/National Security programs. GAP is the nation's leading whistleblower protection organization.