A still from a video about USDA poultry plant inspection (which might soon be a thing of the past). Click to watch.

One of the most quoted lines from Eric Schlosser’s now famous book, Fast Food Nation, comes from the chapter about pathogens in ground beef. Without mincing words, he wrote: “There is shit in the meat.”

Well, that phrase may be relevant again if the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) moves forward with plans to privatize part of its meat and poultry inspection program.

Under the current rules, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for inspecting all chicken and turkey carcasses for things like bruises, bile, and yes, shit, before they’re sent for further processing. The proposed HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) would remove those USDA inspectors from the lines, leaving poultry plant employees, who already stand in a fast-moving, I-Love-Lucy-style line, to flag unsanitary or otherwise flawed birds.

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USDA inspectors now are responsible for 35 birds per minute, but if HIMP moves ahead, lines could move more than 200 birds per minute, according to the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. “We only have a bit over a second and a half to inspect the carcass, which is too fast,” said Steven Clarke, a federal inspector for 26 years, on the advocacy site Let Them Eat Chicken.

Clarke describes the shift as “ plain and simply a job cutting measure.” And in the end, cutting jobs means cutting dollars. In an article from early March, Food Safety News dug up a study [PDF] showing the program is projected to save FSIS up to $95 million over three years, and to give a $250 million boost to poultry companies.

That’s why a number of poultry workers joined Food and Water Watch, the Government Accountability Project, and the National Consumer League in protesting the proposed changes outside the USDA on Monday.

“All [HIMP] really is, is a way to dramatically lower quality and standards,” says Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign. Poultry, she adds, “shouldn’t have feathers, scabs, blisters and pustules. It shouldn’t have feces in the cavity. These are all things that now, under HIMP, are going to be left to the plants to deal with.”

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Hitt said that at Monday’s protest, USDA inspectors joked that HIMP stands for “Hands In My Pocket.”

A crowd rallied outside the USDA on Monday calling for continued oversight of America's poultry plants.

“It’s a hands-off process. Fewer birds are getting rejected, which means you never have to throw anything away—so you never have to stop the line. It’s exactly what anybody in the industry would want.”

In an analysis of a HIMP pilot program, Food and Water Watch found that rushed poultry plant inspectors allowed a shocking number of problems through, including defective and unsanitary birds. The USDA provided, in response to a FOIA request, thousands of pages of documents that revealed:

  • The inspection category that had the highest error rate was for dressing defects such as feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea, and bile still on the carcass. The average error rate for this category in the chicken slaughter facilities was 64 percent and 87 percent in turkey slaughter facilities.
  • The overwhelming number of non-compliance records filed was for fecal contamination. From March to August 2011, 90 percent were for visible fecal contamination.
  • One notable [non-compliance report] read, “I observed a section of intestine wrapped around the rotating paddles in the neck chiller. The intestine was approximately 1 1/2 feet in length, contained fecal material. Additionally, numerous other pieces [of] digestive tract materials, such as chicken crops and esophagus were also observed.”

Not surprisingly, House Republicans — known for their love of corporate “self-regulation” and budget cuts — are anxious to see the pilot program, which started in the late 1990s, expanded [PDF]. The Bush administration backed off an attempt in 2001 to expand the program after strong criticism from the Government Accountability Office.

Rumor has it that the HIMP program could begin as early as October (the current comment period goes through April 26). And, according to Hitt, there’s already a similar pilot program in place for pork production. So this might only be the beginning of a larger meat industry trend.

As gross as all this shit-in-the-meat talk may be, it’s not just for shock value. It’s a matter of food safety. As Hitt puts it: “[Food inspectors] used to ask, ‘Would I put that on my family’s table?’ That was the standard. Now the standard is, ‘Will it kill you?’”