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.”
The pilot program, known as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), was launched in 2002 and fully implemented in 2004, after lobbyists for major meatpacking companies convinced the USDA to test a new inspection model that would allow companies to run faster production lines. J. Patrick Boyle, longtime president of the American Meat Institute, argued that this program represented a “risk-based, prevention-oriented” approach, rather than the slower manual inspection of all carcasses, which the industry derided as “poke and sniff.” The idea sounded convincing enough: if plants hired their own quality-assurance officers to sort out diseased animals before they reached USDA inspection stations, that would reduce the chance of cross-contamination, and inspectors could focus on spots along the line where contamination was likeliest to occur and perform random microbiological tests in those places. Five pork-processing facilities nationwide were selected for the program. Hormel Foods, whose then-CEO Joel W. Johnson was chairman of the American Meat Institute when HIMP was initially approved, managed to get all three of the slaughter operations that the company owns or operates into that select handful.
“When [it] was originally implemented, I had high hopes that the program would improve food safety,” one of the anonymous inspectors, identified as Inspector #2, said in an affidavit. But soon, he said, the production lines under the pilot program, which moved more than 20 percent more rapidly than a standard plant, were “running so fast it is impossible to see anything on the carcass.” Worse still, as Hormel-trained employees took the lead on inspection, the USDA was relegated to double-checking. So the question was not whether the new microbiological tests were superior to traditional physical inspection but whether self-regulation with occasional spot-checking was superior to universally applied government checks. Inspector #2 said that Hormel employees were not only poorly trained but that government standards were lowered, allowing defects previously identified as cause for condemning carcasses to now be cleared for sale to consumers. “This includes things like bile, bruises, bone fractures, scabs, toenails, and skin lesions,” he said. It also meant much less concern about fecal contamination. When he complained to an older inspector he says he was told, “It’s not whether or not people are going to eat shit—they are. It’s just how much.”
Another inspector, identified in affidavits as Inspector #3, went further in his allegations, asserting that these conditions are not merely failures of the new inspection regime but built-in shortcomings intended to allow Hormel to increase its output. “To remain in the HIMP program, pilot plants are supposed to exceed or at least meet the USDA’s standards for food safety and quality,” he said. “I can say without a doubt that this plant is not meeting and certainly is not exceeding these standards. The only way this plant could possibly be meeting these standards is by manipulating employees, USDA inspectors, and their own records and processes. I have personally witnessed all three.”
In his affidavit, Inspector #3, who is still employed inside a Hormel-controlled plant, explains that company supervisors instruct process-control auditors to place carcasses back into production after they have been marked for condemnation, they harass USDA inspectors who issue reports of food safety violations, and they even go so far as to falsify records. All of which leads to unsafe meat making its way to the butcher counter. “I am almost certain that products with [tuberculosis] are being sold raw on a regular basis,” he said. “The company inspectors also fail to detect thyroid conditions all of the time,” which can “trigger serious health problems” for some consumers. And USDA supervisors are unwilling to intercede. “It seems like the USDA is doing all it can to make sure [this] program succeeds in this plant, even if it means betraying consumers by hiding the truth about their food,” the inspector said. “It’s no longer meaningful for consumers to see that mark indicating that their product has been USDA-inspected.”
I have spent more than five years researching and writing about Hormel and the effects of the USDA’s reduced-inspection plan, culminating in a book on the subject. The claims made by these inspectors match what I have long heard from line workers and company-paid process-control auditors, as well as the findings of reports issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and even the USDA’s own Office of the Inspector General. In fact, the USDA’s own records indicate that the Quality Pork plant that supplies Hormel in Minnesota was issued more food safety violations in 2012 (the most recent year available) than any other plant in the country. Nevertheless, Philip Derfler, the deputy administrator of FSIS, wrote in the New York Times in December that my writing “unfairly portrays” the pilot program and insisted that my “dire predictions about FSIS’s direction are without basis.”
Now that the USDA’s own inspectors have come forward, it will be much more difficult for Derfler and others at FSIS to continue to issue such blanket denials, especially considering the potential retribution the inspectors fear they will if they are identified by name. (“They would fire them in a heartbeat!” Ferguson told me.) Still, they say they feel compelled to come forward now for two reasons.
First, many inspectors in these plants are approaching retirement age. They are hoping to stop the pilot program before they are replaced by a generation of USDA employees who don’t know other inspection protocols. “When we’re gone,” one inspector said, “there will be nobody left in this plant with experience working under traditional inspection. It’s sad to say, but the USDA inspection crews continue to get worse and worse. They do not care about fecal matter, and they don’t understand pathology.”
Second, in November, the USDA issued a long overdue report on the pilot program—and gave it rave reviews. Though the report stipulated that Hormel process-control auditors approve roughly two tons a day of pork contaminated by fecal matter, urine, bile, hair, intestinal contents, or diseased tissue, the department found “no reason to discontinue” the program and, in fact, wished to see if it “could be applied to additional establishments.” The inspectors express a shared opposition to this plan—and predict dire consequences if the program is permitted to expand. Hormel already supplies large grocery store and restaurant chains; if expanded from the current five pilot plants to more than 600 plants nationwide, they say, “the high-speed inspection model will lead to more contaminated and defective products on consumers’ plates.”
With the help of GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign, the inspectors have launched a petition drive calling on Jeffrey M. Ettinger, president and CEO of Hormel, to voluntarily reduce the company’s line speeds and return to the traditional manual-inspection model. “As one of the industry’s top producers,” they write in an open letter on the petition website, “you should uphold the integrity of your products.” I support the inspectors in their efforts to directly influence companies like Hormel, but it isn’t enough—and President Obama knows it.
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.”
Ted Genoways received a 2014 National Press Club Award for his coverage of Hormel’s involvement in the drafting and introduction of ag-gag laws and a 2014 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. His book The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection and was named a Best Food Book of 2014 by National Geographic and Mother Jones.