Four U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat inspectors, all working in slaughter operations owned or operated by the Hormel Foods Corporation, have come forward this week with shocking allegations in affidavits offered to the whistleblower protection organization Government Accountability Project (GAP). A government-run pilot program experimenting with a reduced inspection protocol in Hormel-controlled plants “is out of control,” according to Joe Ferguson, who retired in September as an on-line USDA inspector inside Quality Pork Processors, an exclusive co-packer for Hormel located in Austin, Minnesota. Calling the program “a sham the career bureaucrats have drafted to get rid of inspectors,” he warned that higher-ups at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are “in bed with the regulated industry. The companies are now calling the shots. Pretty soon the agency will have no authority.”
Four whistleblowers (three anonymous, one named Joe Ferguson) made statements with signed affidavits disclosing what they have observed working at five pork factories around the country.
These plants have implemented a USDA pilot program called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Inspection Models Project (HIMP). It is intended to speed up production lines and the USDA is looking to expand it to plants nationwide (it was previously implemented with poultry – with unsavory results).
While there are many red flags in the whistleblowers' statements, the most disturbing revelations are the contents of what is allowed in pork at the pilots plants. Because the HIMP program takes USDA inspectors (who at least one whistleblower says were not correctly trained) off the line and puts insufficiently trained plant employees in control, standards have dropped. …
In the budget proposal submitted by the White House earlier this week, the president asked Congress to allow him to merge FSIS with the FDA’s food inspection programs to create a new agency, which would be housed within Health and Human Services. “Food safety and the prevention, mitigation, and response to foodborne illness outbreaks,” the proposal explains, “are public health concerns, consistent with the larger mission of HHS.” The proposal also endorses empowering the new agency with “a number of new authorities and enforcement tools,” similar to those recently granted to the FDA, in order “to strengthen the ability to swiftly remove contaminated food from the market.” It’s a commonsense but bold proposal: to let public health officials decide what food is safe for public consumption. Such a change would represent a first and vital step toward establishing a national food policy that finally puts the safety of all Americans ahead of the profits of a few high-powered corporations.For now, Joe Ferguson told me, the system in place at Hormel is “just nuts.” All told, the company’s three cut-and-kill operations currently process somewhere close to 40,000 hogs every day, and, according to Ferguson, “they don’t care about food safety.” When I asked him if he was saying that Hormel pork is unsafe to eat, he didn't hesitate. “I don’t purchase it,” he said. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
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