If you listen to both critics and proponents of a new U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal to expand a pilot poultry inspection program, you might wonder if they’re talking about the same thing.

In January, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service proposed expanding the HACCP Based Inspection Models Project, known as HIMP, beyond the handful of plants that have been under the program, some since the late 1990s. The agency argues the move would help modernize an archaic inspection system, prevent 5,200 foodborne illnesses annually, and save taxpayers around $90 million over three years (on top of saving the poultry industry more than $250 million annually). It sounds win-win-win.

On the flip side, inspectors on the front lines and some consumer groups argue that expanding HIMP will not only impair food safety, but may also send more defective or unappealing chicken to consumer’s plates. One of the major concerns among inspectors is that HIMP plants allow the line speed — or the speed at which carcasses move through the plant — to increase. Instead of having four inspectors on a 140 bird per minute (bpm) line, inspecting 35 bpm, plants have one FSIS inspector at the end of the line looking at 170 bpm.

FSIS argues that sorting defective chickens is a quality assurance task that poultry companies should take more responsibility for and when they do, plants don’t need as many FSIS inspectors on hand. The one inspector who remains is moved further down the line and will take on a more food safety-centered role by focusing on fecal contamination and increasing microbiological sampling. Over time, the agency will eliminate between 800 and 1,000 jobs through attrition.

Last Monday, around 100 inspectors from across the country protested outside USDA, many holding signs that read “Don’t Play Chicken With Food Safety” and “Chicken Inspection Isn’t a Speed Sport.”

Food & Water Watch has also been highly critical of the proposal and has helped organize thousands of comments and emails against expanding HIMP. In early March, the group released an unsavory analysis that found company inspectors sometimes miss poultry contaminated with feathers, bile and feces.

“Cutting the budget does not justify putting the health and safety of consumers and workers in the balance,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milibank last week called the plan an example of budget cuts serving as “back-door deregulation.”

“Think the Obama administration has been strangling businesses with red tape? wrote Milibank. “Well, that’s a load of chicken droppings.”

Affidavits criticize HIMP

Adding to the already heated debate, the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a whistleblower advocacy organization, late last week released affidavits from three unnamed FSIS inspectors who have served in both HIMP and non-HIMP poultry plants and are critical of expanding the pilot.

“Our investigation and these affidavits clearly show that many USDA inspectors believe the HIMP program puts public safety at risk,” said Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign at GAP.

One inspector filing a statement said he believes that “unsafe and unwholesome birds will be more likely to reach consumers” under the HIMP program: “I have worked at the same plant for over 8 years. When I began working at this plant, the plant operated under the traditional system. This plant has since switched to HIMP, I strongly believe that many of the changes that have accompanied this switch have harmed our ability to ensure that only safe, wholesome birds reach consumers.”

“Under traditional inspection, inspectors would look at the whole bird,” added the inspector. “Under HIMP, we only see the backside of the bird during carcass inspection. As a result, we are unable to see breast blisters, which form because the birds lay on their front, or to spot other harmful defects. For example, fecal matter can appear anywhere on the bird, including the front of the bird, or under the wings, which are folded up.”

Another inspector, a 15-year veteran, said that under HIMP “the plant carries out the majority of inspection activities that would be carried out by USDA inspectors in a traditional plant.”

Line speeds under HIMP are usually between 165 and 175 bpm, according to the inspector statements. “It is difficult, if not impossible to spot defects at that rate,” said one inspector. “And HIMP company sorters have responsibility for pulling out birds with defects.”

But FSIS says that having company-paid employees sort out defects before they are seen by a FSIS inspector makes it easier to look at the birds further down the line — and the agency’s analysis didn’t see a higher rate of defects coming out of HIMP plants. Broiler chickens, for example, are bred to be very uniform in size and shape and the condemnation rate for the carcasses is already “very low,” according to the agency.

Pointing to the data, Hagen defends the proposal

“It’s important that we have a good, public dialogue about this issue, but we wouldn’t be moving forward with anything we didn’t think was about safer food and safer consumers,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, in an interview with Food Safety News. “We need to all be talking about the same set of facts here. Some of the concerns that were put out in the GAP report and some of the GAP statements are not consistent with what we’ve seen or our objective analysis in these areas.”

“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 Hagen. “When it comes to contamination across the board, the HIMP plants are performing at a superior level.”

Hagen emphasized that FSIS inspectors in poultry plants do not lose the regulatory tools already at their disposal. Inspectors are still able to slow or stop the line — if, for example, they are seeing high contamination or defect rates — and they can still issue non-compliance reports or do food safety assessments, just as they do under the traditional inspection system.

What about the line speed? In its investigation, GAP pointed out that under HIMP the one remaining FSIS inspector has to look at some 10,000 birds per hour.

“I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s actually not that big of a bump when you go from 140 to 175,” said Hagen, adding that the company sorters remove most defects before they reach the FSIS inspector. “That inspector is able to look at carcasses that have much fewer defects, so it makes the job of spotting those defects quite a bit easier.”

“We still have an inspector on the line. No product gets to mark of inspection without getting looked at by an inspector.”

The debate over HIMP is likely to continue. Late last year Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) asked the Government Accountability Office to review the program and at least one consumer petition had been launched.