The Washington Post

USDA official defends pilot program for meat inspection

A top food safety official at the USDA says that a pilot program for inspecting pork is working well, defending the experimental procedures being used in five hog plants around the country.

Phil Derfler, deputy administrator for U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said in an interview with Meatingplace, the meat industry’s trade magazine, that government inspectors are making more checks for contamination under the pilot program, called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP). That is why more fecal material is being found on the meat in the processing plants using the experimental procedures, he said in the interview published Friday.

In May, the USDA’s inspector general reported that three of the pilot plants were among the 10 worst offenders in the country for health and safety problems, with lapses that included failing to remove fecal matter from meat. The inspector general said the plant with the worst record by far was one of the five in the pilot program.

The Washington Post, citing documents and interviews, reported Sunday that the experimental inspection program has repeatedly failed to stop the production of contaminated meat at American and foreign plants that have adopted the approach.

Derfler said in the interview that there is no reason for concern.

“We do many, many, many more checks for fecal material in HIMP plants than we do in traditional plants, so it is not surprising that we are finding more in HIMP plants because that is what our inspection personnel are focusing on,” Derfler said.

He noted that the contaminated meat was caught and not sent to consumers.

Under the HIMP model, which has been in place for more than 15 years in dozens of poultry plants in addition to the five hog plants, meat processing companies can run their lines faster and replace about half the USDA inspectors with private employees.

The USDA is planning to propose a final rule later this year that would allow all poultry plants to switch to the HIMP model. USDA officials have said they hope to eventually expand the pork program, as well.

Responding to the concerns raised by the Office of the Inspector General about the pork plants, USDA officials have said they will evaluate the HIMP program’s performance in the hog pilot plants by March.

“What we know is the plants are operating okay,” Derfler said in the interview. “There is no basis for any concern, so therefore we have allowed the system to go as we focused on poultry.” He said the agency remains confident in the job government inspectors are doing.

“We have inspection personnel there every day doing carcass-by-carcass inspections. And they are able to find on a carcass-by-carcass basis [that] the carcasses are not adulterated and they are able to put the mark of inspection on it.”

In a report this month, the Government Accountability Office raised questions about the data the USDA was using in support of its experimental inspection procedures in poultry and pork plants. In part, the GAO said it would be difficult to recommend that the experimental procedures in the pork pilot plants be extended across the country based on HIMP because the number of plants was too small to “provide reasonable assurance that any conclusions can apply more broadly” to all American hog plants.

“All I can tell you is that obviously we are doing the review of the data,” Derfler said in the interview. “We committed to that and the OIG and the GAO [are] aware of that.”

Kimberly Kindy is a national investigative reporter at The Washington Post.

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