Faster is not always better. When it comes to food inspection, animal carcasses shouldn't be whizzing by so quickly that you can't tell the difference between a kidney lesion and a luscious loin, or determine if toenails and shit are contaminating the meat that gets stamped "USDA-inspected."
But according to US watchdog advocacy group, that is exactly what's happening at several of the nation's hog processing plants. The Government Accountability Project (GAP) recently released a damning report, quoting four federal meat inspectors about a high-speed inspection pilot program that is apparently doing far more harm than good for meat safety.
The program—known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Inspection Models Project, or HIMP—was sanctioned by the United States Department of Agriculture more than ten years ago for five different pork processing plants. It reduces the number of USDA inspectors at each plant by half—replacing them with their own employees instead—and amps up the speed of processing lines by nearly 20 percent.
More hogs, fewer line stops, more profit. A similar program for poultry was implemented by the USDA last year, reducing the number of federal inspectors in slaughterhouses from four to just one, and jacking up chicken kills from 140 birds per minute to 175.
GAP released affidavits from four USDA inspectors currently working at the five plants participating in the pilot program—three of which are owned by Hormel. Among their many complaints is that while government inspectors have legal whistleblower protections, plant employees "cannot safely report food safety problems or stop the lines without fear of retaliation." Further, those employees "lack adequate training and often fail to identify signs of defects and contamination that could result in foodborne illness or unwholesome products."
And those signs are pretty gross.
"On numerous occasions I witnessed them [company inspectors] fail to spot abscesses, lesions, fecal matter, and other defects that would render an animal unsafe or unwholesome," said one anonymous inspector.
"Other contamination such as hair, toenails, cystic kidneys, and bladder stems has increased under HIMP," said another. "Line speeds don't make it any easier to detect contamination. Most of the time they are running so fast it is impossible to see anything on the carcass."
Another inspector damned the Agriculture Department itself for the program, saying, "It seems like the USDA is doing all it can to make sure the HIMP program succeeds in this plant, even if it means betraying consumers by hiding the truth about their food."
"Food safety has gone down the drain under HIMP," he added.
Another anonymous inspector put it more succinctly: "When I first started working for [the USDA] an older inspector told me regarding my job duties, 'It's not whether or not people are going to eat shit—they are. It's just how much.'"