WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service here has rebutted published reports concerning shoddy inspection standards within their new Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point-based Inspection Models project -- HIMP -- and, in defending the new system, called the claims "a campaign of misinformation."
Thomas Billy, FSIS administrator, held a press briefing to assure the public and the media that FSIS inspectors were not allowing animal carcasses with cancers, tumors and open sores to be classified as safe for human consumption, as had been recently reported.
"The union leadership misrepresented the facts when talking with the media," said Billy. "I cannot allow irresponsible journalism to misrepresent to the public the gains in food safety and other protection concerns that we are achieving."
Beth Gaston, FSIS spokesperson, told SN the original story on the supposed faulty inspection system was run by Scripps Howard Wire Service after an interview with Delmer Jones, described by some insiders as a "disgruntled" inspectors union member. "Everything from the lead on down was basically incorrect," said Gaston. "And FSIS was not contacted regarding the story before many of the newspapers took it to print."
Several major newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, ran the story directly from the news service piece.
Billy, after stating that the media reports were "absolutely false," also addressed claims made in the same article concerning who was actually performing inspections under the new HIMP program.
This past June, the United States Court of Appeals ruled that the FSIS' new HIMP program utilized an interpretation of both the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act that conflicted with the plain language of the regulations requiring carcass inspections to always be performed by federal inspectors.
The ruling, in effect, states that the FSIS' policy of allowing plant employees to inspect carcasses violates the "clear mandate of the FMIA and PPIA," and renders the status of the FSIS HIMP program in limbo.
"We are very disappointed by the court's decision," said Billy. "The preliminary data show that it is possible to design a system of inspection that is superior to the one currently in place in terms of improving food safety, and we have a public health obligation to continue our modernization efforts."
The Federal Meat Inspection Act requires inspectors appointed by the USDA to perform a "post-mortem inspection" of the carcasses and parts of all livestock and birds processed for human consumption. The question in the appeal was whether the statutes permit federal inspectors to step back from the processing lines and, instead, oversee inspections conducted by plant employees.
The ruling, handed down by a three-judge panel from the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, stated that all inspections of processing plants must be done by federal inspectors, not private employees. In the words of Judge A. Raymond Randolph, the HIMP program's methods mean that inspectors "are inspecting people, not carcasses."
"The things we condemn under traditional slaughter inspection are the same things we condemn under the new system," said Billy, in defense of the HIMP program.
Billy argued that, under HIMP, a federal inspector inspects all carcasses and makes the determination as to whether it's adulterated, and that they have hired a third party to keep track of the number of defective and diseased carcasses that get past the traditional inspectors versus the number that slip through slaughter inspection under HIMP.
J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, in a statement regarding the HIMP program and the current controversy, said that "some members of the inspection workforce have misconstrued the program's food-safety policies with the press. Those inspectors ... cannot dispute the USDA's new data, which shows that HIMP is enhancing food safety."
The FSIS states on its Web site that their policy remains that "defective and diseased carcasses are not permitted to enter commerce," but that "regrettably, no inspection system involving humans is fool proof."
FSIS is considering several courses of action following the ruling, and could request a new hearing before the court of appeals, or possibly the Supreme Court. Until then, the agency vows to continue using the HIMP program.