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Pending HIMP Poultry Rule Ruffles Feathers

An embattled rule that would raise the speed of poultry processing lines and decrease the amount of federal employees inspecting birds is pitting food processors against safety advocates. The rule would expand a pilot program to the entire industry.

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An embattled rule that would raise the speed of poultry processing lines and decrease the amount of federal employees inspecting birds is pitting food processors against safety advocates.

Opponents of the rule, which currently sits with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, say it risks the health of factory workers and American consumers. Meat processors see the rule as a necessary revamp to the current system that will save money and better allocate federal inspectors where they’re most needed.

The pending rule would implement HIMP, or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP)-based Inspection Models Project. A pilot of the HIMP program was initiated in 1999. Twenty-five participating plants modified their HACCP plans to include at least on critical control point addressing food safety diseases and conditions. Each plant also developed a process control plan to address consumer protection concerns that aren’t food safety related, like removing quality defects like bruises. The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service said that HIMP will prevent “at least 5,000 more foodborne illnesses annually.”

The proposed change could boost manufacturer profits and cut the federal budget.

On a press call Thursday, Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, a consumer watchdog group, cited a USDA projection that the industry stands to gain $257 million dollars in revenue annually if HIMP is approved for all processors. The USDA would save $90 million over three years while cutting 800 USDA slaughter line inspectors from the payroll, Corbo said. The call was hosted by the National Council of La Raza, which advocates Hispanic civil rights. Sponsors of the call included the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Coalition of Poultry Workers. 

Several aspects of the rule have become points of contention between the food industry and advocates of consumer and workers rights.

One facet of the rule pertains to the speed of lines of dressed birds being checked for obvious public safety threats that indicate contamination with pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter. The rule proposes increasing maximum line speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175. For turkey processing, line speed would move from 32 birds per minute to 55.

Critics of the rule say these line speeds are too fast to accurately assess the condition of birds. The health of laborers under the new has also been called into question.

Speakers on the press call voiced concern that these higher speeds would hinder line watchers from catching contaminated and defective product. They also said it would add to the already high level of repetitive stress injuries commonly suffered by meat-processing workers. In addition, there’s suspicion that some of the chemicals used to remove contaminants missed in the faster processing lines can cause serious illness in laborers.

Keith Williams, vice president for communications and marketing for the National Turkey Federation, told Food Manufacturing that “results prove that [HIMP] benefits food safety with no adverse impact on the industry’s diverse, committed workforce.”

On the call, Corbo presented the results of a Food & Water Watch data analysis obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request that showed that the highest error rates in the pilot were dressing defects, including feathers, lungs, trachea and bile on the carcasses. The average error rate was 64 percent for chickens and 87 percent for turkeys, according to Food & Water Watch.

But USDA data shows that foodborne disease risk is lowered through HIMP.

The USDA said that under the HIMP, USDA inspectors do more inspecting off of the processing line, which leads to safer food. Salmonella is 20 percent less frequent in HIMP establishments, according to USDA data. Fecal matter is present 50 percent less frequently in HIMP facilities compared to non-HIMP plants. The former are checked with quadruple the frequency of the former, the USDA said.

The American Meat Institute has said that line speeds are just one factor in effective safety controls. The number of staff manning the line is just as vital to safety as how quickly it’s moving, according to the industry group.

Another facet of the proposal would change the current regulation of placing USDA inspectors along the line to check for defects. Instead, plant workers would take those positions, leaving just one federal inspector at the end of the line.

Williams said the rule “allows poultry plant employees to carry out specific activities related to product quality and other consumer-protection matters and enables FSIS inspectors to be responsible for scientific oversight and ensure the industry is meeting the required food safety performance standards.”

If the USDA approves the rule, it will be sent to the Office of Management and Budget for final review before it’s made official. Speakers on the call noted the 2014 U.S. budget has slated reductions in the money allotted for inspectors, indicating approval of the rule is expected. The timeline for the rule ends in April.

What do you think: is the approval of HIMP vital to the poultry processing industry or a threat to public health? Sound off in the comments below.