Hormel Foods is at the centre of claims a US government pilot programme for inspections of pork plants is putting consumers at risk.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP) has said it has evidence from four US Department of Agriculture inspectors who have said the programme will lead to “more contaminated and defective products on consumers’ plates”. Hormel owns three of five plants taking part in the pilot.

“The USDA already refused to listen to its own inspectors when it implemented a similar high-speed inspection program for poultry late last year. Now the agency is poised to reduce oversight and increase line speeds at plants with hogs,” Amanda Hitt, director of GAP’s food integrity campaign, said. “It’s become abundantly clear that the Department of Agriculture is not interested in listening to the food safety concerns voiced by its own staff. Since the government doesn’t wish to heed whistleblowers, we are urging pork producers to reject sub-par meat inspection that places profit before public health.”

GAP claimed the four “whistleblowers” had raised a number of problems at plants taking part in the pilot.

For example, plant employees have been taking over the duties of government inspectors. GAP said federal employees have whistleblower protections that would not apply to Hormel staff. “While federal employees (including at USDA) have whistleblower protections and can speak on behalf of the plant workers, Hormel employees are in the private sector and have inadequate legal safeguards. They cannot safely report food safety problems or stop the lines without fear of retaliation,” GAP said.

The NGO also said lines at the pilot plants run up to 20% faster than those at facilities operating under traditional inspection. GAP said the quicker speeds “make it even more difficult for plant employees and USDA inspectors to detect contamination on carcasses”.

GAP also claimed inspectors in pilot plants reported a higher level of zero-tolerance food safety hazards compared to plants operating under traditional inspection.

Officials at Hormel had not returned a request for comment at the time of going to press.