Objection to USDA Plan Allowing Poultry Producer Self-Inspection Spreads to Congress

Wednesday, March 19, 2014
(AP photo)

When the Obama administration unveiled a plan last year to privatize food inspections at poultry plants, a host of consumer and environmental organizations objected to the idea. Now, nearly 70 members of Congress have joined the opposition and called for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to scrap the idea before it is implemented.


In a letter (pdf) to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 68 lawmakers explained that allowing operators of chicken and turkey slaughterhouses to inspect their own operations is a dangerous idea.


They noted that the new system, which Vilsack must still adopt, would replace 40% of USDA inspectors with plant employees while also allowing companies to speed up processing lines by up to 25%. This will be financially lucrative for both the industry and the USDA: $90 million is expected to be saved over three years by the department, and more than $200 per year would be saved by poultry plants.


These changes, however, could compromise worker safety and increase the risk of food-borne pathogens reaching consumers, according to lawmakers and other critics.


The U.S. representatives cited reports of animal cruelty and problems with the current speed of the processing lines, all of which they believe could be exacerbated by the new system. They also noted that there are already high rates of carpal tunnel syndrome among plant workers, which has the potential to worsen if the changes go into effect.


Citing a supportive Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, lawmakers also challenged a USDA claim that salmonella rates would drop by 1.9% if the proposal is adopted.


“While we strongly support modernizing our food safety system and making it more efficient, modernization should not occur at the expense of public health, worker safety, or animal welfare,” the lawmakers wrote. “We therefore harbor serious concerns over what we believe are the Food Safety [and] Inspection Service (FSIS)’s inadequate considerations to date of these issues in promulgating this rule…We urge FSIS to withdraw the proposed rule until the agency has thoroughly addressed its impact on the public, workers, and animals and adherence to good commercial practices.”


Sixty-seven Democrats and one Republican (Michael Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania) signed the letter.


The USDA has received four other letters from members of Congress objecting to the new inspection system, along with one letter in support and one neutral.


In addition, more than 100 agriculture, food safety, worker rights, animal welfare and environmental groups have sent a joint letter to President Barack Obama calling on him to withdraw the proposal. Accompanying the letter were nearly 220,000 petitions expressing opposition to the plan.


Food & Water Watch, a consumer organization that objects to the plan, said the new system would leave only one government inspector per plant to check an average of 175 birds a minute (or three a second).


Critics charge that the sped-up processing lines will require an increase in the amount of potentially dangerous chemicals used on the nine billion chickens and turkeys that move through U.S. processing plants each year. This was acknowledged by Ashley Peterson, the National Chicken Council’s vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs. “If line speeds at a plant are increased and if more birds are produced, obviously the volume of antimicrobials will increase…” she said in a statement. However, Peterson described it as “food safety intervention” that would use diluted USDA-approved chemicals to which workers’ exposure would be minimalized.


Phyllis McKelvey, who worked as a USDA poultry inspector for 14 years, countered that the danger is real. “They don’t talk about it publicly, but the line speeds are so fast, they are not spotting contamination, like fecal matter, as the birds pass by,” she told The Washington Post. “Their attitude is, let the chemicals do the work.”


The USDA has disputed the idea that worker injuries would increase under the plan, noting that—in the event it does happen—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would look into it.


“The industry has been chipping away at the USDA’s mandate to protect our food system for over a decade,” wrote Wenonah Hauter for Food & Water Watch. “There is a dangerous deregulatory effort underfoot that would take FSIS out of the food safety business altogether. Instead of trying to enhance its ability to regulate food safety standards, this agency seems to be turning the keys over to the industry to police itself. That is not in the interest of public health and it needs to be stopped.”


The majority of the country may well agree. Nearly three-quarters of Americans want more government oversight of food safety, not less, according to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive.


While USDA’s Vilsack has said he plans to finalize the rules implementing the controversial changes in April, Obama already included the plan’s anticipated cost savings in his 2015 proposed budget.

- Danny Biederman, Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Congress Members Protest USDA’s Proposed Poultry Inspection System (by Kimberly Kindy, Washington Post)

Email Shows USDA Cowering to Industry on Poultry Safety — Again (Food and Water Watch)

Letter to Tom Vilsack (68 Members of Congress) (pdf)

Food Safety Inspectors Object to Allowing Poultry Companies to do Their Own Inspections (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

USDA Proposes Privatizing Poultry Inspections (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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