July 16, 2024

HIMP Criticism and Questions

The USDA’s proposed changes to poultry inspection, called HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), have been criticized by many consumer groups. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) released a statement on the changes. Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at that agency, said, “there has been no thorough independent review of HIMP since 2001 when the GAO reviewed the program and raised serious concerns about the data presented by FSIS to justify the program.”

Chicken carcass on lineThe statement continued, “Even more troubling is FSIS’s recent admission that plants may temporarily change their food safety processes during FSIS verification sampling. In a notice to inspectors, FSIS noted that plants may be increasing chlorine levels in poultry chillers to levels not supported under the plant’s HACCP plan prior to or during FSIS sampling for Salmonella, and then returning to normal chlorine levels after FSIS sampling is completed.”

We talked to Mr. Waldrop about this issue, asking why the USDA is proposing these changes. He answered, “saving resources is a big driver. Congressman Kingston (R-GA) has been pushing this to save money and reduce expenditures at the USDA as a whole. But that shouldn’t be the reason to modernize the system.”

We asked Mr. Waldrop why visual inspection is important. He said it’s important “for quality and food safety issues. Diseased birds with food safety implications can be spotted with visual inspections. Not every visual problem with a bird is food safety related, but some are.”

Waldrop also has a problem with the increase in line speeds. He said that three birds flying by per second is a big concern. “FSIS has never done a study on what the effects of increased line speeds are on worker safety. There is an agreement with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to do a study on the impact of increased line speeds. Unfortunately, there is only plant in that study. FSIS is implementing a rule without the full results.”

There’s another problem with HIMP, Waldrop pointed out. “The agency is going to allow employees to sort the product, but they don’t require training for those employees,” he said. “FSIS inspectors are thoroughly trained and know what to look for. FSIS is requiring training for foreign companies as part of the FSIS equivalency training. U.S. employees are exempt from that training, and there’s no good rational behind that decision.”

We asked why HIMP hasn’t been independently reviewed. Waldrop answered, “in 2001, the GAO report looked at the program and whether or not it’s beneficial. GAO was critical of HIMP and raised concerns about whether their comparison was valid, and about the training issue. That was the only independent evaluation. Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) wrote a letter to the GAO to request another evaluation.”

We asked how FSIS should modernize the system. Waldrop said, “by increasing testing. The USDA is requiring testing at pre-chill and post-chill steps, but they let the plants decide the frequency of testing, and what to test for. That puts too much variability into the system. They don’t require testing for Salmonella and Campylobacter. The government needs to specify frequency for testing, set a standard for testing, and require tests for those bacteria.”

The CFA has been advocating for a test and hold program for years. FSIS has recently proposed this type of system, where foods are tested for bacteria and not released into commerce until the tests come back negative. “There have been many recalls for products that have been shipped without negative test results,” Waldrop said.

We asked if plants are really changing their processing methods before FSIS inspections. He answered, “we’ve heard that as well; FSIS put out a notice to their inspectors saying this may be occurring. I don’t know of specific instances, but the government was concerned enough about this issue to put out a notice. Factor that into the whole discussion and it raises some concerns that there may be false indications of what’s going on in that plant.”

Finally, we asked if purchasing organically-raised chickens will make any difference to consumers in terms of food safety. Waldrop said, “No. Most of the chicken processing facilities will become part of this program. If you can find one of the few, smaller facilities that do work by hand the results may be different. But the majority of the poultry industry is going to be under this program.”



  1. Mike Smith says

    Visual inspection with the current system is necessary to remove diseased birds from commerce. Maybe one cannot see the causal organism but inspectors can see that the bird is diseased and remove it from commerce. The plant people are not impartial or competent to perform this important frontline food inspection task.

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