By HELENA BOTTENMILLER
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will delay a proposed rule to expand a controversial poultry inspection system, ABC World News reported in a scathing segment Wednesday.
The decision was made “to give the agency more time to respond to critics,” according to the report by ABC’s Jim Avila, who was a key figure in the recent “pink slime” firestorm.
The rule in question would broadly expand the HACCP Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) beyond the 20 poultry plants already participating. The HIMP model reduces the number of Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors on duty and largely turns over physical inspections to company employees, while allowing plants to speed up their lines to 175 birds per minute, over the current 140 bpm limit. FSIS says the proposal will modernize an outdated inspection system, save taxpayers around $90 million over three years, and prevent 5,200 foodborne illnesses, mostly from Salmonella, annually.
The National Chicken Council has been strongly in favor of the proposal, which would save the industry $250 million each year, according to USDA estimates.
Food & Water Watch, the whistleblower advocacy group Government Accountability Project, and some FSIS inspectors have been extremely critical of the plan, arguing that it privatizes inspection and puts consumers at risk.
Avila’s piece, titled “USDA to Let Industry Self-Inspect Chicken,” is likely not going to sit well with Americans, who consume 84 pounds of chicken annually, more than any other meat.
On Twitter, responses to the report were almost unanimously negative, including comments like “I’m sorry what?!” and “Wow can I grade my own exams too?” and “Time to become a vegetarian.”
ABC World News has an average audience of 7 million viewers each night.
FSIS says HIMP plants perform better than non-HIMP plants and that the data supports expanding the pilot — providing both a food safety and taxpayer benefit.
“Bottom line here is that our experience has shown us that in these plants are not only meeting but exceeding food safety performance standards,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, in a recent interview with Food Safety News. “When it comes to contamination across the board, the HIMP plants are performing at a superior level.”
But FSIS inspector Stan Painter told ABC News that HIMP plants fudge test results by tweaking processes “when they know a test is coming” to make the program look better.
“I not only saw that, as a plant employee, I was ordered to do that,” said Painter.
“They do cheat the system,” added Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food & Water Watch.
FSIS Administrator Al Almanza responded to the allegations in the segment: “We do not have evidence of that. But when we’re told of anything of that nature we take those allegations seriously.”
Consumer groups, progressive activists and the government employees union announced this week that they are delivering 150,000 signatures opposing the plan to USDA on Friday. The groups have also launched a campaign website called LetThemEatChicken.com.
The rule, which is open for comment until April 26, can be found here.