The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a report finding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) did not adequately evaluate the impact of proposed poultry and hog inspection changes that would replace some USDA inspectors on slaughter lines with plant personnel tasked with ensuring quality and safety standards. According to the report, USDA implemented several pilot projects at poultry and hog processing plants over the past decade but ultimately failed to gather enough data to assess the effectiveness of these new systems. Nevertheless, the agency has since proposed an optional inspection scheme for both poultry and hog operations “based on its experience with the pilot projects at young chicken and young turkey plants.”

Asked to review these pilot projects by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), GAO determined that the proposed changes would give production plants more flexibility and responsibility while allowing inspectors to focus their efforts on food safety activities. It also found, however, that (i) “training of plant personnel assuming sorting responsibilities on the slaughter line is not required or standardized”; (ii) “faster line speeds allowed under the pilot projects raise concerns about food safety and worker safety”; and (iii) USDA failed to provide accurate cost-benefit information to stakeholders and did not disclose “certain limitations in sources of information it relied on to develop the cost-benefit analysis supporting the proposed rule on modernizing poultry slaughter inspections.” In the case of the pilot projects implemented at hog farms, GAO expressed additional concern that small sample sizes “would not provide reasonable assurance that any conclusions can apply more broadly to the universe of 608 hog plants in the United States in 2012.”

Based on these findings, GAO has called on USDA to (i) “collect and analyze information to determine if the young hog pilot project is meeting its purpose” and (ii) “clearly disclose to the public limitations in the information it relied on for the proposed rule to modernize poultry slaughter inspections.” Although USDA has concurred with these recommendations, consumer groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) have already urged USDA to scrap the new inspection systems altogether in light of GAO’s conclusions.

“The government does not have enough evidence that the existing hog and poultry pilot programs—on which the new poultry program is based—have succeeded in resulting in safer meat,” said CSPI Senior Food Safety Staff Attorney Sarah Klein in a September 9, 2013, statement. “While you can’t see Salmonella, it’s clear that these carcasses are whizzing by too fast for inspectors to keep the product free from even visible contamination.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post has reported that these pilot programs have “repeatedly failed to stop the production of contaminated meat” at plants in Australia, Canada and the United States. Citing internal documents and interviews, the Post claims that the new inspection system—which purportedly increases the speed of processing lines “by as much as 20 percent” and replaces half of the USDA safety inspectors at each plant with private inspectors— has “experienced a rash of problems,” resulting in at least one recall of 8.8 million pounds of Canadian beef products allegedly tainted with E. coli.

“In interviews, six USDA inspectors working in the pilot plants raised health concerns,” writes government accountability reporter Kimberly Kindy in the September 8, 2013, article. “Several said company and government workers are yelled at, threatened and shunned if they try to slow down or stop the accelerated processing lines or complain too aggressively about adequate safety checks. They also warned that the reduction in the ranks of government inspectors in the plants has compromised the safety of the meat.”

In a related development, FSIS has reissued a notice clarifying the “responsibilities and authorities relating to assessing and reducing slaughter or evisceration line speed” for inspectors-in-charge (IICs), public health veterinarians (PHVs), and off-line and on-line inspection program personnel (IPP) working at processing plants. According to FSIS, PHVs and IICs “are to ensure that IPP can perform a post-mortem inspection of poultry and livestock carcasses at all times” and “to slow maximum allowed line speeds when slaughter process control is not maintained because of inconsistencies in size, weight, class of animal or bird, health, pathology, contamination, sanitary dressing or presentation.” In particular, the notice emphasizes that on-line IPP must alert PHV, ICC or off-line IPP “if they detect trends of increasing contamination, pathology, disease, or improper presentation” and can stop the line when necessary “to prevent the production of adulterated or unwholesome product.” See FSIS Notice, September 10, 2013.