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Proposed poultry inspection changes get mixed review

As the Agriculture Department today a proposed some changes in chicken and turkey inspection, the chicken industry expressed enthusiasm for the plan while some consumer groups were critical of it.

In what USDA described as a “modernization” that will save money for businesses and taxpayers, the agency proposed that company employees be allowed to perform some functions that are now being performed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack
Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack
“The modernization plan will protect public health, improve the efficiency of poultry inspections in the U.S., and reduce spending,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

“The new inspection system will reduce the risk of foodborne illness by focusing FSIS inspection activities on those tasks that advance our core mission of food safety,” Vilsack said. “By revising current procedures and removing outdated regulatory requirements that do not help combat foodborne illness, the result will be a more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars.”

Vilsack said that under the proposed plan, FSIS employees would focus on “critical food safety tasks to ensure that agency resources are tied directly to protecting public health and reducing foodborne illnesses.”

“Additionally, some outdated regulatory requirements are being removed and replaced with more flexible and effective testing and process control requirements,” he said. “Finally, all poultry establishments will now have to ensure that their procedures prevent contamination in the production process and provide supporting data to FSIS personnel. FSIS will continue to conduct on-line carcass-by-carcass inspection as mandated by law. This rule will allow FSIS personnel to conduct a more efficient carcass-by-carcass inspection with agency resources focused on more effective food safety measures."

The proposal was posted today on the FSIS website (link below), and soon will publish in the Federal Register. The comment period will end 90 days after the proposal publishes in the Federal Register.

The National Chicken Council, saying a pilot program in effect since 1998 for 20 young chicken plants and five young turkey plants has been successful, said the proposed rule is “the logical next step in the modernization of USDA inspection and the poultry industry supports the program’s expansion.”

But Food & Water Watch, a consumer watchdog group, said today it “vehemently” opposes the plan and “any other attempts to privatize food safety functions that are the responsibility of the federal government.”

Wenonah Hauter
Wenonah Hauter
“This proposal is unacceptable and violates the department’s legal obligation to protect consumers by inspecting every carcass and every bird produced in USDA-inspected plants,” said Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter.

Food & Water Watch said that in USDA’s pilot project, line speeds have been permitted to run as fast as 200 birds per minute, which is several times faster than other poultry slaughter plants.

“Reports from these plants indicate that the company employees who perform inspections that used to be performed by USDA inspectors are not properly trained or given the authority to take necessary action to stop unsafe product from leaving the plant,” Food & Water Watch said, adding that it had examined 5,000 pages of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

“The records show that bile, sores, scabs, feathers, and digestive tract tissue are often not being properly removed from chicken carcasses,” the group said.

“This plan by USDA illustrates how much power the meat industry has inside this agency,” continued Hauter. “Handing over food safety inspections to companies to perform themselves is unacceptable."

The Consumer Federation of America said today that it has concerns about USDA's decision because it would allow all poultry slaughter plants to participate on a voluntary basis in the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), even though there has been no thorough independent review of HIMP since 2001, when the Government Accountability Office raised serious concerns about the data presented by FSIS to justify it.

CFA noted that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., recently asked GAO to conduct a review of HIMP, but that today's announcement pre-empts any independent review.

"It was only last year when the agency proposed new performance standards for salmonella and campylobacter and testing to those new standards has barely begun," CFA said. "So consumers have no assurance that plants under HIMP can meet the new standards."

"Even more troubling is FSIS's recent admission that plants may temporarily change their food safety processes during FSIS verification sampling," CFA said. "In a notice to inspectors, FSIS noted that plants may be increasing chlorine levels in poultry chillers to levels not supported under the plant's HACCP plan prior to or during FSIS sampling for Salmonella and then returning to normal chlorine levels after FSIS sampling is completed."