Tom Philpott

The People Who Pick Your Organic Strawberries Have Had It With Rat-Infested Camps

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

When most of us think of Mexican food, we visualize tacos, burritos, and chiles rellenos. But we should probably add cucumbers, squash, melons, and berries to the list—more or less the whole supermarket produce aisle, in fact. The United States imports more than a quarter of the fresh fruit and nearly a third of the vegetables we consume. And a huge portion of that foreign-grown bounty—69 percent of vegetables and 37 percent of fruit—comes from our neighbor to the south.

Mexican farmers whose work supplies US supermarkets and restaurants often endure subpar housing, inadequate sanitation, poverty wages, and labor arrangements that approach slavery.

Not surprisingly, as I've shown before, labor conditions on Mexico's large export-oriented farms tend to be dismal: subpar housing, inadequate sanitation, poverty wages, and often, labor arrangements that approach slavery. But this week, workers in Baja California, a major ag-producing state just south of California, are standing up. Here's the Los Angeles Times: "Thousands of laborers in the San Quintín Valley 200 miles south of San Diego went on strike Tuesday, leaving the fields and greenhouses full of produce that is now on the verge of rotting."

In addition to the work stoppage, striking workers shut down 55 miles of the Trans-Peninsular Highway, a key thoroughfare for moving goods from Baja California to points north, the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada (in Spanish) reported after the strike started on March 17.

The blockade has been lifted, at least temporarily. But the "road remains hard to traverse as rogue groups stop and, at times, attack truck drivers," the LA Times reports. And the strike itself continues. The uprising is starting to affect US supply chains. An executive for the organic-produce titan Del Cabo Produce, which grows vegetables south of the San Quintín Valley but needs to traverse it to reach its US customers, told the Times that the clash is "creating a lot of logistical problems…We're having to cut orders." And "Costco reported that organic strawberries are in short supply because about 80% of the production this time of year comes from Baja California," the Times added. The US trade publication Produce News downplayed the strike's impact, calling it "minor."

Meanwhile, the strike's organizers plan to launch a campaign to get US consumers to boycott products grown in the region, mainly tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries, inspired by the successful '70s-era actions of the California-based United Farm Workers, headed by Cesar Chavez, La Jornada reported Tuesday. And current UFW president Arturo Rodriguez has issued a statement of solidarity with the San Quintín strikers.

Such cross-border organizing is critical, because the people who work on Mexico's export-focused farms tend to be from the same places as the people who work on the vast California and Florida operations that supply the bulk of our domestically grown produce: the largely indigenous states of southern Mexico. And the final market for the crops they tend and harvest is also the same: US supermarkets and restaurants.

In a stunning four-part series last year, LA Times reporter Richard Marosi documented the harsh conditions that prevail on the Mexican farms that churn out our food. He found:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It's common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences, and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major US companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

As for their counterparts to the north, migrant-reliant US farms tend to treat workers harshly as well, as the excellent 2014 documentary Food Chains demonstrates. The trailer, below, is a good crash course on what it's like to be at the bottom of the US food system. In honor of National Farm Worker Awareness Week, the producers are making it available for $0.99 on iTunes. And here's an interview with the film's director, Sanjay Rawal, by Mother Jones' Maddie Oatman.

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Study: Monsanto's Roundup Herbicide Probably Causes Cancer [UPDATED]

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

UPDATE: Monsanto is trying furiously to discredit the World Health Organization's assessment that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen. The company is pushing the WHO to retract the assessment, Reuters reports. And in an email, a Monsanto public relations person wrote that "[W]e are reaching out to the World Health Organization (WHO) to understand how, despite the wealth of existing science on glyphosate, the IARC [International Agency for Research on Cancer] panel could make a classification that disagrees with scientific and regulatory reviews."

Monsanto has assured the public over and over that its flagship Roundup herbicide doesn't cause cancer. In a stunning assessment (free registration required) published in The Lancet, a working group of scientists convened by the World Health Organization reviewed the recent research on glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup and the globe's most widely used weed-killing chemical, and found it "probably carcinogenic to humans."

One scientist called the report's finding "the most surprising thing I've heard in 30 years" of studying agriculture.

The authors cited three studies that suggest occupational glyphosate exposure (e.g., for farm workers) causes "increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma that persisted after adjustment for other pesticides." They also point to both animal and human studies suggesting that the chemical, both in isolation and in the mix used in the fields by farmers, "induced DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals, and in human and animal cells in vitro"; and another one finding "increases in blood markers of chromosomal damage" in residents of several farm communities after spraying of glyphosate formulations.

Monsanto first rolled out glyphosate herbicides in 1974, and by the mid-1990s began rolling out corn, soy, and cotton seeds genetically altered to resist it. Last year, herbicide-tolerant crops accounted for 94 percent of soybeans and 89 percent of corn, two crops that cover more than half of US farmland. The rise of so-called Roundup Ready crops has led to a spike in glyphosate use, a 2012 paper by Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook showed.

Benbrook told me the WHO's assessment is "the most surprising thing I've heard in 30 years" of studying agriculture. Though a critic of the agrichemical industry, Benbrook has long seen glyphosate as a "relatively benign" herbicide. The WHO report challenges that widely held view, he said. "I had thought WHO might find it to be a 'possible' carcinogen," Benbrook said. "'Probable,' I did not expect."

He added that the report delivered no specific conclusions about the dosage glyphosate requires to trigger cancer. But given that US Geological Survey researchers have found it in detectable levels in air, rain, and streams in heavy-usage regions, that it's widely used in parks, that it has also been found in food residues (though the US Department of Agriculture does not regularly test for it), the Environmental Protection Agency will likely come under heavy pressure to demand new research on it. Most US research on glyphosate, Benbrook added, has focused on the chemical in isolation. But in the real world, glyphosate is mixed with other chemicals, called surfactants and adjuvants, that enhance their weed-slaying power. Importantly, some of the research used in the WHO assessment came from outside the US and looked at real-world herbicide formulations.

Monsanto shares closed nearly 2 percent lower Monday as investors digested the news. It's not heard to see why they're squeamish. The agribusiness giant is most known for its high-tech seeds, but its old-line herbicide business remains quite the cash cow, as its 2014 annual report shows. That year, the division reaped about a third of the company's $15.8 billion in total sales. Indeed, Monsanto's herbicide sales grew at a robust 13 percent in 2014 clip, vs. an anemic 4 percent for its other division, seeds and genomics.

Fast-Food Chains Tell Workers to Treat Burns With Mustard, Ketchup, and Mayo

| Wed Mar. 18, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

On my very first shift after being promoted to line cook from busboy at a busy Texas steakhouse back in the '80s, I watched a wizened colleague deftly transfer a catfish filet straight from a fryer basket to a plate using only his bare fingers. Bristling with teenage zeal, I attempted the same trick—earning a surge of pain and five raised welts (one for each finger tip) that troubled me for weeks. I learned several important lessons—about technique, calluses, and the wonders of tongs—and never suffered another serious burn in my near-decadelong career as a cook.

Kitchens seethe with danger: sharp (or, worse, dull) knives; fire; hot pans full of gurgling liquids; vats of boiling grease. Injuries are inevitable. In a properly trained and staffed outfit, however, they should be minimal. But as the above video shows, that's not always the case. Made by the union-led Fight for $15 campaign, which aims to improve wages and conditions for fast-food workers, it depicts truly nasty conditions prevailing behind the scenes at a McDonald's outlet.

And McDonald's isn't the only chain with worker safety issues. A new poll of 1,426 adult fast-food workers—1,091 of whom work in the kitchen "at least some of the time"—suggests that things are out of control in the nation's fast-food kitchens.

Hart Research Associates, on behalf of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH)

Note that those numbers reflect the injury experiences of all the workers polled, even those who don't work on the kitchen side of the operation. Among the approximately 1,100 kitchen workers polled, 75 percent reported having been burned multiple times over the past year. Among nonkitchen workers, 61 percent reported a burn in the past year, most often from handling hot liquids, the report notes. That 12 percent of respondents said they've been assaulted over the previous year suggests that security, too, is an issue in fast food outlets.

Now, these startling numbers raise the question of why the polled workers didn't learn to navigate the dangers of the kitchen after one burn, like I did as a teen. Among the recent burn victims in the poll, 46 percent cited either "pressure from managers to work more quickly than is safe" or "having too few employees to handle the workload safely" as the main culprit of their injury. And 28 percent blamed either "missing or damaged protective equipment" or "broken or damaged kitchen equipment."

The kitchen where I worked was amply staffed with experienced cooks and outfitted with functional equipment. According to this poll, those conditions don't always prevail in our nation's fast-food outlets.

Hart Research Associates, on behalf of behalf of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH)

And when people get injured, it's depressingly difficult to get decent treatment:

More than one-third (36%) of fast food workers report that their store is missing a basic tool of injury preparedness: a stocked, accessible first aid kit. In addition to the 8% who say their restaurant does not have a first aid kit at all, 19% say that the kit in their store is missing important items such as Band-Aids or burn cream, and 14% say the kit is located in a place inaccessible to employees such as a manager's office or a safe.

Then there's this jaw-dropper: "Incredibly, one-third (33%) of all burn victims say that their manager suggested wholly inappropriate treatments for burns, including condiments such as mustard, mayonnaise, butter, or ketchup, instead of burn cream." (Sure, there's a history of using mustard as a burn salve; but workers should at least have the option of reaching for medicated burn cream.)

For their trouble, fast-food cooks earn an hourly median wage of $8.87, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—a poverty wage. And contrary to industry dogma, fast-food jobs aren't all about disposable income for teenagers. Around 70 percent of the industry's workers are 20 and older; and more than a third are at least 25 years old. Crappy wages and unsafe conditions go together like burgers and fries; they're symptoms of a food system that prizes zealous cost-cutting and shareholder profit above all else.

Meet the New Endocrine-Disrupting Plastic Chemical, Same as the Old One

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 5:13 PM EDT

By now, most people know about the common plastic additive bisphenol A (BPA), which behaves like estrogen in our bodies and has been linked to a range of health problems, including cancerbirth defects, and irregular brain development in kids. Like other endocrine-disrupting chemicals, BPA seems to cause hormonal damage at extremely low levels. In a 2014 story, my colleague Mariah Blake brought home an unsettling point: The chemical compounds that manufacturers have been scrambling to use in place of BPA might be just as bad.

And now a new paper, published on the peer-reviewed Environmental Health Perspectives, examines the science around two common chemicals used in "BPA-Free" packaging: BPS and BPF. The authors looked at 32 studies and concluded that "based on the current literature, BPS and BPF are as hormonally active as BPA, and have endocrine-disrupting effects." In other words, the cure may be just as bad as the disease.

It's not clear how widely these substitutes are being used, because manufacturers aren't required to disclose what they put in packaging. But there's evidence that BPS is quite common. BPA, for example, is widely used in paper receipts to make them more durable; and in a 2014 study, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency tested paper receipts from 19 facilities, and found that nine contained BPA and nine contained BPS. The researchers concluded that BPS is "being used as a common alternative to BPA in thermal paper applications, and in comparable concentrations."

Because "BPS has also been found to be an endocrine active chemical," the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency urges the state's businesses to shift to electronic receipts. I've taken on a similar strategy—I'm even phasing out my beloved canned craft beer, because cans used by the food and beverage industries tend to be lined with BPA. Unlike the businessman in The Graduate, I've got two words, not one—at least until the chemical industry can prove it can create a genuinely safe BPA substitute: Avoid plastics.

Nutritionist Group: Feed Your Kid Kraft "Cheese Product"

| Mon Mar. 16, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

Kraft can't call its individually wrapped, orange-colored slices "cheese," at least not precisely. Hell, it can't even use the phrase "pasteurized process cheese food," because the Food and Drug Administration requires products with that designation be made up of at least 51 percent real cheese. Instead, Kraft's American singles bear the appetizing appellation "pasteurized process cheese product," because in addition to cheese, they contain stuff like milk protein concentrate and whey protein concentrate.

Kraft Singles are the first product to earn the Kids Eat Right endorsement from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

But the processed-food giant can proudly display the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' "Kids Eat Right" seal on the label of its iconic American Singles, reports the New York Times' Stephanie Strom. In fact, the plastic-wrapped slices are the first product to earn the Kids Eat Right endorsement, Strom adds.

That a bunch of professional nutritionists would hail imitation cheese as ideal kid food might seem weird—but not if you read this 2014 piece by my colleague Kiera Butler, who attended the annual meeting of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' California chapter. McDonald's catered the lunch, and the Corn Refiners Association—trade group of high-fructose corn syrup manufactures—ran a panel on the benefits of "Sweeteners in Schools," Butler reported. 

Then there's this 2013 report from the food industry lawyer and researcher Michele Simon, which documented the strong and ever-growing financial ties between the Academy and Big Food companies, including Kraft.

Marketing the singles directly to parents through the Kids Eat Right label may be part of the company's effort to revive the fortunes of its legacy brands. Last month, the company's new CEO, John Cahill, declared that 2014 was a "difficult and disappointing year," and announced the departure of the company's top execs for finance, marketing, and R&D.

In the end, though, slapping a kid's health label on such a highly processed food may do more to damage the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' brand than bolster Kraft's.

4 Surprising Facts About Wheat and Gluten

| Wed Mar. 11, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
Is bread the devil? No, but it's complicated.

Is wheat a "perfect, chronic poison," in the words of Wheat Belly author William Davis, or an innocuous staple that has been demonized to promote a trendy line of gluten-free products? I dug into the issue of wheat and its discontents recently, and walked away with some informed conjectures, but also a sense that the science is deeply unsettled. Now, a group of Cornell researchers (joined by one from Thailand) have performed a great service: For a paper published in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, they've rounded up and analyzed the recent science on wheat and the potential pitfalls of eating it. Here are the key takeaways:

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What Did Monsanto Show Bill Nye to Make Him Fall "in Love" With GMOs?

| Wed Mar. 4, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Bill Nye, the bow-tied erstwhile kids' TV host, onetime dancer with the stars, and tireless champion of evolution and climate science, was never a virulent or wild-eyed critic of genetically modified crops. Back in 2005, he did a pretty nuanced episode of his TV show on it, the takeaway of which was hardly fire-breathing denunciation: "Let's farm responsibly, let's require labels on our foods, and let's carefully test these foods case by case."

In his book Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, published just last November, Nye reiterated these points. His concern about GMOs centered mainly on unintended consequences of growing them over large expanses—he cited the example of crops engineered to resist herbicides, which have been linked pretty decisively to the decline of monarch butterflies, which rely on abundant milkweeds, which in turn have been largely wiped out in the Midwest by GMO-enabled herbicide use. Nye praised certain GMOs, such as corn engineered to repel certain insects, but concluded that "if you're asking me, we should stop introducing genes from one species into another," because "we just can't know what will happen to other species in that modified species' ecosystem."

Now, Nye's doubts have evidently fallen away like milkweeds under a fine mist of herbicide. In a February interview filmed backstage on Bill Maher's HBO show (starting about 3:40 in the below video), Nye volunteered that he was working on a revision of the GMO section of Undeniable. He gave no details, just that he "went to Monsanto and I spent a lot of time with the scientists there." As a result, he added with a grin, "I have revised my outlook, and am very excited about telling the world. When you're in love, you want to tell the world!"

Monsanto's longtime chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, responded to the interview with an approving tweet featuring a photo of Nye at company HQ:

It will be interesting to hear what wonders within Monsanto's R&D labs turned Nye from a nuanced GMO skeptic to a proud champion.

What's French for Chicken Nugget? The Truth About School Lunches Around the World

| Sat Feb. 28, 2015 6:00 AM EST
This depiction of a school lunch in Greece looks delicious, but it's not based in reality.

By now you've probably seen the viral slideshow called "School Lunches Around the World," in which a heavily processed American school lunch is contrasted against an array of fresh, healthy-looking victuals from Italy, France, Greece, etc. It's a compelling argument against the puny resources spent on school lunch in the United States, where, once labor and overhead are accounted for, schools get less than a dollar per daily lunch to spend on ingredients.

But as the great school-food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel points out, those sumptuous photos don't depict actual meals being served in actual schools—but, rather, staged shots that oversimplify a complex topic. As it turns out, Sweetgreen, a chain of health-food eateries located mainly on the East Coast, produced the photos, but didn't make that clear on its Tumblr.

In case you haven't seen them, here's a sampling:

Photo: Sweetgreen
Photo: Sweetgreen
Photo: Sweetgreen

So we see images of appetizing lunch from countries around the world contrasted against a relatively grim platter of pale chicken nuggets, potatoes, and peas from here in the good ol' USA. Siegel writes that many of her readers sent her a link to the gallery, "understandably but mistakenly" under the impression that the images depicted real-deal lunches, not a corporate photo shoot. The UK's Daily Mail even took them at face value, blaring in a headline that "Photos reveal just how meager US students' meals are compared to even the most cash-strapped of nations."

Siegel, though, had questions:

Sweetgreen says it based is photos on "some typical school meals around the world," but it doesn't tell us how it obtained the information underlying the photos. Were the meals modeled on public school menus? Private school menus? Are the meals depicted typical of what's served in a given country, or did Sweetgreen cherry-pick the most appealing items? And on what basis were the elements chosen for America's school meal?

Most egregiously, the Greece photo portrays a robust lunch featuring chicken over whole grains with yogurt, pomegranate seeds, a salad, and fresh citrus. Siegel provides a reality check: Debt-plagued Greece doesn't have the resources to provide much of anything to eat for its school kids. She points to a 2013 New York Times piece reporting that Greek schools "do not offer subsidized cafeteria lunches. Students bring their own food or buy items from a canteen. The cost has become insurmountable for some families with little or no income." Meanwhile, Siegel points out, even with dire funding for US lunches, more than 20 million economically distressed US kids had access to free or cut-rate lunches in 2013.

She adds that some US school districts do magical things with their minuscule budgets. Besides, even in France, where schools typically have twice as much to spend on ingredients per meal, lunches in some cases can look pretty, well, American.

Here's Sweetgreen's version of the French lunch:

Photo: Sweetgreen

And here's one of an French lunch Siegel found on the What's for School Lunch? blog, where "real people around the world submit their actual photos of school meals." There's no reason to assume all French lunches consist of chicken nuggets and well, French fries—but there's no reason to believe that Sweetgreen's idealized version is representative, either.

Photo: What’s for School Lunch?

After Siegel's posting, Sweetgreen added an appendage to its Tumblr page:

Note: These images are not intended to be exact representations of school lunches, but instead, are meant to portray different types of foods found in cafeterias around the world. To create this series, we evaluated government standards for school lunch programs, and compared this data to photos that real students had taken of their meals and shared online.

Sweetgreen's photo essay was designed to support an effort to raise funds for Food Corps, a "nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy" through cooking and gardening classes. It's an impressive bit of corporate marketing on behalf of a good cause—but not an accurate depiction of school lunch.

Diet Advice From Warren Buffett

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Ren Zhenglai/ZUMA Press

"Is the junk-food era drawing to a close?," I recently wondered aloud, citing declining sales from processed food giants like Kraft and Kellogg's. If so, no one has bothered to inform gazillionaire investment mogul and octogenarian Warren Buffett. "I'm one quarter Coca-Cola,” Buffett recently told Fortune's Patricia Sellers. "If I eat 2,700 calories a day, a quarter of that is Coca-Cola. I drink at least five 12-ounce servings. I do it everyday." In addition to being one quarter Coke, Buffett literally owns 9 percent of Coca-Cola, through his conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway. And the cagey old investor apparently knows what he's doing—even though soft-drink sales have been declining for years, Coke's share price has nearly doubled since 2011, borne up by financial engineering tricks like share buy-backs, Fortune reports.

In addition to regular infusions of the sugary soft drink, Buffett's diet regimen includes breakfasts of Utz Potato strings and chocolate chip ice cream, Sellers reports. If his diet sounds eerily similar to the one you dreamed of pursuing in first grade, that's apparently no accident. Here's Sellers:

Asked to explain the high-sugar, high-salt diet that has somehow enabled him to remain seemingly healthy, Buffett replies: “I checked the actuarial tables, and the lowest death rate is among six-year-olds. So I decided to eat like a six-year-old.” The octogenarian adds, “It’s the safest course I can take.”

For most of us, loading up on processed junk probably isn't the way forward. But far be it for me to question Buffett's lifestyle choices—he's going strong at 84 and has probably made more bank in the past 15 minutes than I'll make in my entire lifetime. 

USDA Whistleblowers Tell All–and You May Never Eat Bacon Again

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 6:00 AM EST

In 2004, Elsa Murano stepped down from her post as chief of the US Department of Agriculture division that oversees food safety at the nation's slaughterhouses. Two years later, she joined the board of directors of pork giant Hormel, a company that runs some of the nation's largest slaughterhouses. Murano received $238,000 in compensation for her service on Hormel's board in 2014 alone. 

Read "The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret" and "Gagged by Big Ag." Illustration by Tim O'Brien

This is a classic example of the "revolving door" that separates US government regulators from the corporations they regulate. It's hardly the most shocking thing I gleaned from the whistleblower-protection group Government Accountability Project's recent exposé of conditions at three hog slaughter facilities associated with Hormel. But it's interesting to think about in light of GAP's allegations, found in sworn affidavits filed by four USDA inspectors stationed in Hormel-owned plants. Three of the inspectors chose to remain anonymous; the fourth, Joe Ferguson, gave his name.

Their comments focus on three Hormel-associated plants, which are among just five hog facilities enrolled in a pilot inspection program run by the USDA. In the regular oversight system, USDA-employed inspectors are stationed along the kill line, charged with ensuring that conditions are as sanitary as possible and that no tainted meat ends up being packed for consumption. In the pilot program, known as HIMP (short for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project), company employees take over inspection duties, relegating USDA inspectors to an oversight role on the sidelines.

"USDA inspectors are encouraged not to stop the line for fecal contamination."

What's more, the HIMP plants get to speed up the kill line—from the current rate of 1,100 hogs per hour to 1,300 hogs per hour, a jump of nearly 20 percent. The five plants rolled out the new inspection system around 2002, USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee said. That's when Murano, now on the Hormel board of directors, ran the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. If the privatization-plus-speedup formula sounds familiar, it's because the USDA ran a similar experimental program for chicken slaughter for years. After much pushback by workplace and food safety advocates and media attention (including from me), the USDA decided not to let poultry companies speed up the kill line when it opened the new system to all chicken slaughterhouses last year (though it did green-light turkey facilities to speed up the line from 51 to 55 birds per minute).

All four affidavits offer blistering critiques of the hog version of the pilot program. Three themes run through them: (1) company inspectors are poorly trained and prepared for the task of overseeing a fast-moving kill line involving large carcasses; (2) company-employed and USDA inspectors alike face pressure from the company not to perform their jobs rigorously; and (3) lots of unappetizing stuff is getting through as the result of (1) and (2).

The testimony of Inspector 3, affidavit here, is full of choice nuggets, though not of the sort you want to sample before lunch. Here are a few:

  • "Not only are plant supervisors not trained, the employees taking over USDA's inspection duties have no idea what they are doing. Most of them come into the plant with no knowledge of pathology or the industry in general."
  • "Food safety has gone down the drain under HIMP. Even though fecal contamination has increased under the program (though the company does a good job of hiding it), USDA inspectors are encouraged not to stop the line for fecal contamination."
  • "HIMP was initially designed for the kill of young, healthy animals. This hasn't always been the case. A lot of the animals the plant has killed were too old. Some also had different diseases. They didn't even slow down the line for the diseased carcasses."
  • "The company threatens plant employees with terminations if they see them condemning too many carcasses or carcass parts."

For its part, Hormel insists that "food safety is our top priority and we have been a leader in the production of safe, quality food for more than 100 years," as Rick Williamson, Hormel's manager of external communications, wrote in an email. "In addition to the USDA inspectors at the facility, there are Hormel Foods employees trained to the standards of the USDA conducting the additional inspections," he continued. "We've found this allows the USDA inspectors better perspective and more flexibility to monitor activity and identify any issues." As for food safety concerns, he added that "our facilities consistently meet or perform better than published USDA microbiological performance standards." But he didn't respond to my request for data to back that claim up, or for commentary on charges of poor training and intimidation of inspectors. But he did add a plug for the privatized inspection and faster kill lines enjoyed by three Hormel-associated plants: "The HIMP program places more accountability on the company, and we welcome that responsibility."

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency that runs the inspection program, is standing behind HIMP too. USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee pointed to a November 2014 FSIS report that, he said, "shows that the food safety outcomes at the pilot facilities are on par with those operating under other inspection systems." The report concluded that there's "no reason to discontinue HIMP in market hog establishments." 

Meanwhile, the pilot inspection program will continue running as is, confined to five slaughterhouse and not expanding to include others, Lavallee said. Before expanding, he added, "the agency would first need to conduct a risk assessment to determine whether doing so would have a significant positive public health impact, and then engage in the rulemaking process, which can be lengthy."

However, the USDA's and Hormel's rosy assessment of HIMP presents a stark contrast to a scathing 2013 report from yet another USDA agency, the Office of the Inspector General, which found HIMP plants—which it did not name—made up three of the top 10 US hog plants earning the most food safety and animal welfare citations in the period of fiscal years 2008 to 2011. Moreover, by far the most-cited slaughterhouse in the United States over that period was in the program—it drew "nearly 50 percent more [citations] than the plant with the next highest number." The OIG also concluded that that the Food Safety and Inspection Service "did not provide adequate oversight" of HIMP over its first 15 years, and as a result,  "HIMP plants may have a higher potential for food safety risks."

Not all company-employed inspectors "understand and have the ability to execute the proper procedures needed to make sure pathogens don't spread to other carcasses" when "fecal matter or ingesta spills out of one of the animal's organs."

Ted Genoways, who in 2012 wrote a harrowing account in Mother Jones of what accelerated line speeds have meant for workers slaughterhouse workers, rejects Hormel's sunny assessment. Genoways' reporting, later expanded into the superb 2014 book The Chain, focused on the Quality Pork Processors plant in Austin, Minnesota, which supplies its meat solely to Hormel and is one of the three Hormel-associated plants among the five in HIMP. He recently told Food Safety News, "Yes, I think the line speeds [at the HIMP plants] are too fast. When you see the workers on the line say the speeds are too fast, the inspectors say the lines are too fast, the suppliers at the farm level say the lines are too fast, there's such a unanimity of opinion that I don't think you can come to any other conclusion."

Well, not quite unanimous. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, of course, continues to defend the pilot program. But then there's its cozy ties to industry—in addition to Murano's leap to Hormel, FSIS's then-chief of staff flew the coop to the National Turkey Federation in 2011, and another high official bolted to work for meat processor OSI Group just this month. Given the tasty meat industry opportunities that evidently await the USDA's food safety administrators, I take FSIS's defense of the HIMP program in the face of these sworn statements with about as much salt as you might find in a slice of Hormel's signature product, Spam.