By: Janet Riley

The Washington Post didn’t delay in misleading the public with a story in Monday’s paper on a May USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on a the HACCP Inspection Models Project (HIMP) pilot program in place in five plants.  Nope.  The “misleading” started with the headline, continued in the lead and then was compounded on Twitter.

“USDA pilot program fails to stop contaminated meat” reads the online headline.  But a few paragraphs into the story, the Post fesses up that “the contaminated meat did not leave the plants because it was caught by government inspectors once it reached the end of the processing line.”  In essence, the inspectors did their jobs, the public was protected and no recalls or foodborne illness outbreaks were linked to any of these plants.

When you disassemble an animal, contamination may occur. That’s why plants follow a specific process  that is monitored to provide safe products.  Multiple checks and balances by plant personnel as well as government workers are designed to address issues while in the plant.

Under the HIMP program, plant employees (not private meat inspectors, as the story claims) sort and prepare carcasses for inspection by federal inspectors whose job it is to identify food safety defects.  That inspectors identified some defects in the pilot plants is not a surprise, as inspectors find such defects in non-pilot plants.  If inspectors didn’t find food safety defects, it’s a good guess that the Post would question whether the inspection system was working.

USDA’s HIMP system for pork plants has been in place for a number of years and there are no plans to expand it.  But that didn’t stop the Post from calling the system one that USDA plans to roll out nationwide.  So confident was the Post in their claim that they tweeted news of this planned expansion, only to have USDA tweet back, “report false.  No plans in works for a new inspection program for pork;  USDA not “about to roll out” anything.”  Oops.

While we weren’t quoted in the story, we were asked Friday mid-day for comment about the OIG report.  We were told we had until Monday afternoon to provide a statement, but we replied within an hour.  The story at issue ran before the deadline that was communicated to us and ran without our comments.    We told the Post that USDA’s OIG has a job to do:  to identify areas where USDA’s numerous agencies can do better.  And that’s precisely what OIG did in its May 2013 report, which included a review of the HIMP program for pork plants.  The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) took OIG’s recommendations seriously, made detailed corrective actions and OIG accepted the FSIS action plans.  Significantly, FSIS has committed to doing a complete review of the performance of HIMP plants compared to non-HIMP plants.  Those findings will offer objective evidence of the program’s performance – way more objective than that comments provided by critics in the Post story.

It is noteworthy that since the OIG report came out in May, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report was issued, which also gave the program a critical review and noted the program’s strengths, including the fact that it gives plants responsibility and flexibility for ensuring food safety and quality and allows USDA inspectors to focus more on food safety activities. GAO made two general recommendations, one of which related to pork plants.  More specifically, GAO suggested mechanisms and practices that would enable FSIS to collect additional data and analyze that data to help the agency develop a more effective inspection system.   GAO did not suggest, however, that the program should be discontinued.  Based upon the agency’s response, it is clear that FSIS is taking GAO’s feedback seriously and strengthening the program further.

Most important for consumers is the fact that there have been no food safety issues or product recalls associated with products from any of the five pork plants that use the HIMP system.  We welcome FSIS’s review of the program’s success and any improvements that can be made as a result of that analysis. It’s important that federal agencies continue to be given the opportunities to run pilots such as HIMP so that the  regulatory agencies can evolve and improve to meet emerging challenges.

All of us, even OIG, always aspire to be better, but the data show high level of compliance by industry and an effort by the agency to execute the mission of the inspection service. A careful read of the Post story reveals that the scary headlines about meat safety are just a cover for the real issues: fears by labor that changes to inspection procedures may jeopardize union jobs.  When it comes to meat and poultry safety, results and true experts should chart the course, not union concerns.  Perhaps if news stories were inspected as well as meat products, the misleading ones wouldn’t get out the door. Unfortunately this story is just another example of poor oversight that allowed a bad product to enter commerce, and this time, with the Washington Post’s seal of approval.

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