Origins of the program
The new meat inspection program dates to 1997, when the USDA announced it would allow five large hog plants to enroll in the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based Inspection Models Project, commonly referred to as HIMP. The plants would be able to accelerate their processing lines and use company employees, instead of some USDA inspectors, to check that the meat was safe.
The kickoff of HIMP in the late 1990s was welcomed as a victory by the meat industry, which had pushed for decades for the changes. Meat companies anticipated they would increase profits by moving more carcasses through their slaughterhouses each day while reducing government oversight.
The government, for its part, expected to save millions of dollars annually by reducing its inspection force, and projected that prices would fall for consumers.
The USDA promised at the time to study the performance of the new inspection procedures adopted by the hog plants in the pilot program.
But the agency never did so. The USDA inspector general reported this spring that, after 15 years, the department has yet to study whether the program was meeting its stated goals of improving both food safety and efficiency in plants.
In response to the criticism, the USDA said it would complete a study by March and then hopes to make the case for extending the inspection system across the nation’s 608 swine plants.
Auditors from the inspector general’s office found that three of the five plants in the pilot program had racked up scores of health and safety violations, many of them for problems that were never fixed. The report did not identify the five plants and said that, since no study had been done, it was difficult to determine if contamination and other deficiencies could be attributed directly to the inspection system.
But the auditors pointed out that the safety records at the three most-troubled pilot plants were worse than those at hundreds of other U.S. swine plants that continued to operate under the traditional system, which features slower processing speeds and about double the number of government inspectors.
In a separate report issued this month, the Government Accountability Office said it would be difficult to recommend that the experimental procedures be extended across the country based on the pilot program. The pilot program was too small to “provide reasonable assurance that any conclusions can apply more broadly to the universe of 608 hog plants in the United States,” the report found. Moreover, it said, the USDA had not collected comparable data from pilot plants and traditional plants needed to evaluate the procedures.