Proponents of the HIMP model favor it because it is designed to increase food safety and increase production. HACCP, the acronym for "hazard analysis and critical control points," is a systematic preventive approach to food safety that reduces the risk of biological and chemical hazards to a safe level. However, as implemented the HIMP-modeled poultry inspection program may not provide the safeguards that it boasts. In fact, not only may HIMP fail to ensure the safety of poultry, as implemented it may also increase the risk of poultry plant workers. As a result, poultry businesses may risk increased lawsuits from consumers sickened from unhealthy poultry and from workers injured in the workplace.
With HIMP the role of federal inspectors is de-emphasized in favor of antimicrobial sprays and private inspectors. The advantage of the HIMP system to the poultry industry is that it could save the industry over $256 million per year and speed up production. The concept is attractive to the federal government not only because it is supposed to increase food safety, but also because it would save the government $30 million per year and result in the elimination of over 800 inspector jobs.
Consumer rights group Food & Water Watch (FWW) is not convinced that the HIMP system is a safe alternative for consumers. Based on facts from the HIMP pilot program that FWW received through a Freedom of Information Act request, FWW concluded that private inspectors do a much less thorough job of inspecting poultry compared to governmental inspectors. For example, the data collected from the pilot program shows that private inspectors miss many defects in poultry carcasses including defects in feathers, lungs, oil glands and trachea. Private inspectors also miss bile that remains on carcasses. As a result of these sub-par inspections, unhealthy chickens could enter the consumer market and end up in grocery stores.
Worker Safety Concerns
In addition to questions about poultry safety the HIMP system brings concerns about worker safety. The HIMP system requires workers to constantly handle sharp knives and use weighty antimicrobial sprays. This work must be done in an environment with increased production levels. The GAO has expressed concerns about worker safety. In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has noted that, in general, workers in poultry plants suffer frequent musculoskeletal injuries. Similarly, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently reported that in one poultry plant 40% of workers showed signs of carpal tunnel syndrome. With increased production, it is likely that such injuries will increase in both frequency and severity.
Amidst criticism from advocacy groups as well as the GAO, a high-ranking official with the USDA defends the HIMP system. Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety at USDA, argues that the evidence is clear that food safety is not compromised in plants that are in the pilot HIMP program. Hagen notes that the USDA would not propose to expand the program if it did not further food safety. USDA data shows that inspectors in HIMP establishments check for contaminants more often and find it less often than non-HIMP establishments. As for worker safety, Hagen dismisses the concern that the increase in production in HIMP establishments would put workers at risk by pointing out that there is no evidence to support that claim. Finally, Hagen implies that the HIMP initiative is actually good for inspectors who end up losing their jobs since they will all be offered new, higher paying positions within the Food Safety Inspection Service.
Despite the concerns related to both the safety of the poultry and the safety of plant workers raised not only by consumer groups, but also by government agencies, the current administration appears intent on moving forward with a plan that it announced in January 2012 to expand the HIMP process from just 29 chicken, turkey and hog plants to all U.S. poultry plants.
Do you think the HIMP system is flawed, or that the way it has been implemented is flawed? Is it a matter that the private inspectors have not been trained well enough and that they lack the experience of the government inspectors?
Andrew Mounier is a passionate member of the End Ecocide movement, an avid legal blogger, author and Content Engineer.