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Food safetyUSDA’s proposed chicken safety inspection policy could mean trouble for consumers

Published 8 August 2012

The federal government has come up with a new proposal to examine chickens for contaminates and diseases, and the proposal has some people concerned and others outright scared; the proposal would reduce the number USDA food safety inspectors at poultry plants from four to one – and rely on plant’s employees to do safety inspections instead

The federal government has come up with a new proposal to examine chickens for contaminates and diseases, and the proposal has some people concerned and others outright scared.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), which oversees poultry plants, thinks the changes would “Ensure and even enhance the safety of the poultry supply by focusing our inspectors efforts on activities more directly tied to improving food safety.” FSIS spokesman Dirk Fillpot said in a statement.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the proposal would speed up production as much as 25 percent, but in order to do this the proposal would pull most federal inspectors off the lines and instead replace them with plant workers.

The USDA says the proposal will modernize food inspection while saving money for taxpayers and the poultry industry. The agency also says it wants its inspectors to focus on issues that pose the greatest health risks to the public.

Food safety and consumer groups, however,  think the plan would have negative ramifications that would endanger the U.S. food supply. It could also create a conflict of interest as the proposal would allow for just one federal inspector at a poultry plant instead of the four which are deployed now.

Felicia Nestor, a food safety advocate and a consultant with the Government Accountability Project says the passing of the proposal could scare her into no longer eating chicken.

“I went out and bought a food processor so we could make more vegetarian meals,” Nestor said. “If the changes go into effect my husband and I will never buy chicken.”

The FSIS says that the new system would force poultry plants to take more responsibility for weeding out birds with diseases, infections, and defects. These conditions include an infection of the blood called septicemia which discolors the bird and an infection called an inflammatory process which can cause a hard yellow scab under the chicken’s skin. Under the current regulations, a federal inspector will pull these birds off the production line, but under the new rules the decision would largely be left up to the factory workers.

Most factory owner s would be satisfied with the new regulations, but Georgia plant owner Will Harris of White Oak Pastures is not one of them.

“I don’t want to be the fox watching the henhouse,” Harris whose farm also raises grass fed cattle and sheep, told the Journal-Constitution.

Advocates say they are not opposed to modernizing poultry inspection and requiring plants to take more ownership of their product.  They also say, however, that the agency’s proposal goes far beyond that, giving too much control and freedom to poultry plants while also relaxing the government’s oversight.

“All they’ve done is remove regulations,” Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told AJC. “They haven’t replaced them with better standards.”

Davd Barrett, a federal inspector assigned to poultry plants in Gainesville, worked in the industry as a young man and knows the dark side of working at a plant.

“They don’t like it when we slow the lines down,” Barrett said of the plant supervisors. “You think they’re going to allow their own people to do it?”

USDA has not decided when it will make its final decision on the proposal, but the system would be voluntary and they expect all but the smallest plants to opt into the new rules because the other option would make it hard for those plants to remain competitive in the industry.

Under the new regulations, the major changes would include:

  • Using workers in chicken and turkey plants to replace all but one federal inspector on the conveyor belt where bad birds are removed from the production line.
  • Letting those plants decide how much training their workers receive in identifying diseased or defected birds.
  • Enabling plants to speed up slaughter line so that the sole federal inspector, who will be stationed at the end of the line, will be required to view up to 175 birds per minute. The maximum speed is now 140, but with the work being divided among four inspectors, that comes out to an average or 35 birds per minute for each inspector.
  • Letting poultry plants decide what dangerous bacteria they test carcasses for and how often they test. The plants would also be no longer required to test for E. coli.

The government says the changes will save taxpayers over $90 million over three years, but the poultry industry would save over $256 million a year in production costs according to a USDA projection.