Jan 30 (Reuters) - Processing lines at some U.S. hog slaughterhouses are moving too fast for inspectors to adequately address contamination and food safety concerns, according to an advocacy group that says it has obtained affidavits from four government meat inspectors.
In the affidavits, released Friday by the Government Accountability Project, a "whistle-blower protection" organization, the inspectors detail experiences inside pork-processing plants participating in a pilot program engineered by the USDA to speed up lines while improving food safety and trim inspection costs.
The inspectors, three of whom currently work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture while the fourth recently retired, allege they have seen practices that increase the risk of salmonella contamination of meat on the processing line.
They also noted an increased level of contamination of meat with "cystic kidneys" and "bladder stems" from the slaughtered animal carcasses.
Joe Ferguson, a USDA inspector with 23 years at the agency who retired last year, said in one affidavit that the program is giving too much control over food safety to private industry.
The USDA program is a pilot program being conducted in five pork-processing plants.
A similar program is in place at U.S. poultry plants, and the labor union representing U.S. poultry inspectors has been battling the USDA in federal court, claiming the new program jeopardizes food safety.
Under the program plant operators take on more responsibility for carcass inspection while government inspectors verify the effectiveness of the company's work.
Hormel Foods Corp. operates or contracts with three plants piloting the government program, and the GAP group's Food Integrity Campaign said it was launching a petition drive urging Hormel to slow down its processing lines and conduct closer inspections.
Hormel said that food safety is a top priority and it has found the government program allows for more efficient and effective oversight. Hormel's facilities meet or exceed USDA standards, the company said.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service also states that the new model is more efficient and provides enhanced food safety protection.
In November, the USDA issued a report about the hog slaughter inspection program that concluded the plants in the program are performing as well as those not in it.
USDA spokeswoman Catherine Cochrain said the USDA has not yet determined whether or not it will expand the program beyond the five pork plants.
Reporting By Carey Gillam; Editing by Alan Crosby