The video also appears to show pigs with pus-filled abscesses being sent down the line. Others are covered in feces.
"If the USDA is around, they could shut us down," says a worker, wearing a bright yellow apron, standing over the production line.
The graphic video -- available on YouTube in an edited form -- was covertly filmed by a contracted employee of Compassion Over Killing, a nonprofit animal rights group that claims to have infiltrated an Austin, Minn., facility run by Quality Pork Processors (QPP), a supplier of Hormel Foods, the maker of Spam and other popular processed meats. The group has turned over the 97-minute unedited video to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has raised serious concerns about the conditions at the QPP facility and pledged a thorough investigation. A reporter has also seen the full-length video provided by the group.
"The actions depicted in the video under review are appalling and completely unacceptable, and if we can verify the video’s authenticity, we will aggressively investigate the case and take appropriate action," said USDA spokesman Adam Tarr, adding that the agency can't comment definitively in the middle of the probe.
QPP, which has seen both the edited and unedited versions, says the edited film makes it look as though there were violations when, in fact, there were none.
"Early on, there may very well be contamination present in the process, but we have multiple interventions that ensure that it will not only be visually removed, but completely removed," said Nate Jansen, who is the vice president of human resources and quality services at QPP. "Had it been allowed to show the entire sequence of these events, all of these hogs were all handled appropriately."
To gain access to the QPP facility, the Compassion Over Killing contractor applied for five months for jobs at meat processing companies and was eventually hired at QPP. Compassion Over Killing requested the person's name not be disclosed because he still works at QPP, but showed a pay stub indicating employment there. The person did not describe on his job applications his affiliation with the activist group.
"I don't think you can look at the video along with the USDA guidelines and say that QPP is following the law," said Ted Genoways, the author of "The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food," who has seen the video but is not associated with the group. "This plant is the symbol of everything that is wrong with the meat industry."
In particular, the video shines a light on a government-approved pilot program, known as the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), which allows processors like QPP to assume more responsibility over the inspection process.
The company is one of five pork processors participating in the HIMP program, which the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) launched in the late 1990s. As part of the initiative, the government substantially changed the way it oversees meat production, more than doubling the number of safety checks (from 11 to 24) within a facility and reallocating government inspectors to focus more closely on food safety. The goal, as stated on the agency's Web site, was to "produce a flexible, more efficient, fully integrated" system.
In the HIMP inspection model, three government inspectors are stationed on the production line, compared to the usual seven who oversee the handling of carcasses in the traditional system. In both, an additional offline inspector is free to move around. The reduction in government inspectors dedicated to checking hogs on the line has allowed the government to save money by reducing its inspection force. It has also allowed plants to increase their line speed — on average, participants in the pilot program process roughly 120 extra hogs per hour, according to the USDA.
The USDA speaks highly of the program, which it has repeatedly defended. "Obviously, we believe that the model is an appropriate one," said Phil Derfler, the deputy administrator at FSIS. "That’s why we went ahead with the rule-making in order to adopt it — it's an improvement on the traditional system."
But Lisa Winebarger, who serves as a legal counsel to Compassion Over Killing and helped bring the investigation to the USDA, said QPP is violating those directives.
"I understand that QPP is denying any wrongdoing, but we can assure you that much of what we have documented are serious problems labeled as 'egregious inhumane treatment' and 'egregious noncompliances'" by the government's directives, she said.
Over the years, HIMP has drawn a growing number of skeptics, including former inspectors and factory workers, who say the changes allow processors to increase profits at the expense of animal welfare and food safety. They point to a key difference between the traditional inspection system and the pilot program, which places the responsibility for the initial stages of inspection — the sorting out of diseased and contaminated carcasses — on the plant instead of the government. This, they say, allows for companies to speed up the process, hide violations, and, ultimately, compromise the food supply.
"We went from having 7 inspectors assigned to the slaughter line to only 3 physically on the line now," Joe Ferguson, a former USDA inspector, wrote in one of four affidavits given to the whistleblower protection group Government Accountability Project last year. "Our physical inspection duties are now performed by plant sorters that work for the company."
A 2012 report by the USDA's inspector general also raised questions about the program. The audit found several problems, including a lack of oversight and inability to ensure humane handling. One passage in particular stands out:
HIMP plants have fewer FSIS inspectors, and processing lines are allowed to operate at higher speeds than in traditional plants because plant employees — rather than FSIS inspectors — sort out diseased carcasses and parts before they reach FSIS inspectors for final determination of wholesomeness.
Although HIMP was intended to improve food safety, we found that 3 of the 10 plants cited with the most NRs [noncompliance records] from FYs [fiscal years] 2008 to 2011 were HIMP plants. In fact, the swine plant with the most NRs during this timeframe was a HIMP plant — with nearly 50 percent more NRs than the plant with the next highest number. This occurred because of FSIS’ lack of oversight.
A 2013 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited concerns that plant personnel were not properly trained, and that faster line speeds were increasing the risk of food and worker safety issues.
A Washington Post investigation conducted that same year, meanwhile, found that several USDA inspectors felt that participants were prioritizing maintaining the accelerated processing line speeds over ensuring proper safety checks.
The USDA maintains that these reports don't indicate a widespread problem with the program.
"The inspector general audit pointed out things that needed to be fixed, it made a set of findings and recommendations, and we responded with things we were already doing to address them," said Derfler. "They accepted all of our responses."
Tarr says that a handful of government inspectors are given free rein to oversee any part of the production process. They move as they please, which, he says, helps reduce the incentive to cheat. He points to the incidence of public-safety-related violations, which government records show are lower on average in the HIMP program.
Animal rights activists, however, argue that the conditions at QPP, where line speeds approach 1,300 hogs per hour, some of the fastest in the industry, tell another story.
"Everyone is just trying to keep up with the speed that we're expected to work at," said the contractor of Compassion Over Killing who is currently employed at QPP. "And the management is constantly pushing as many hogs through as possible."
"They would have you believe that the inspection levels are the same, but they are not," he added. "Believe me. What's in the video is only what I managed to capture on tape."
The footage was taken over the same period in which the USDA was performing its own internal review of the HIMP program. The government agency is currently evaluating whether it will recommend that HIMP become the new industry standard.
The USDA says that the actions depicted in the video likely occurred outside of the purview of government inspectors, but that by law all federally inspected plants, whether using the HIMP inspection model or not, must abide by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
"Had these actions been observed by the inspectors, they would have resulted in immediate regulatory action against the plant," Tarr said.