5 Reasons Why Privatizing Poultry Inspection is a Really Bad Idea

Why placing fewer inspectors in poultry plants isn’t likely to result in safer food.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is proposing what they’re calling a modernization of chicken and turkey inspection at slaughtering plants. In the world of government regulation, the term “modernization” usually means simplification. Sometimes modernization is a good thing when it truly untangles layers of complicated and confusing regulations. Other times it just means less regulation.

The proposed changes would remove government inspectors from the processing line and concentrate them offline, ostensibly to allow them to focus only on inspection tasks related to food safety. The inspection and sorting duties once performed by FSIS inspectors on the processing line would be given to employees of the plant. The rule also allows poultry lines to speed up from a maximum of 70 to 140 birds per minute to a maximum of 175 birds per minute. If this sounds like more of a gift to the poultry processing industry, than a boon to food safety, it is. Here’s how the new rule could affect consumers and workers.

1. Lack of Training + Faster Line Speeds=More Worker Injuries

The proposed rule does not prescribe specific training for the establishment employees that are taking over the duties of the online inspectors. The USDA will provide their training materials to the plant, but there is no mechanism to ensure that those materials are used, or that they are made available in a language understood by the workers.

In addition to inspecting birds and removing deformed and visibly diseased birds, line workers will also be expected to perform trimming duties – all while the line is moving faster. It’s hard to imagine that this won’t in itself result in more defected and possibly diseased birds getting through, and it’s a given that it won’t be a boon to workers.

The proposed rule would allow some plants to increase line speeds from a maximum of 70 to 140 birds per minute to a maximum of 175 birds per minute. Poultry plant jobs are already among the most dangerous in the nation, with under-reporting of injuries common, and little recourse for the workers, many of who are undocumented.

2. More Dirty, Diseased Chickens Coming to a Plate Near You

A pilot of the proposed program has been up and running in two-dozen plants since 1998. Consumer group Food & Water Watch examined 5,000 pages of documents pertaining to the pilot, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and found troubling levels of non-compliance with current regulations. Among the reports were high rates of carcasses contaminated with feathers, bile, scabs, organ bits, and visible feces. According to Food & Water Watch, The Government Accountability Office issued a report in 2001 critical of the privatization scheme, which has languished in these pilot plants before being proposed again in early 2012.

 3. Poultry Plants Will Make Up Their Own Process Control Rules With No Government Oversight

In the Summary of Issues raised during the initial comment period, FSIS states that “establishments operating under the proposed new inspection system would have the flexibility to implement the process controls that they have determined would best allow them to produce RTC (ready to cook) poultry.” Not only that, but “there would be no pre-approval of an establishment’s procedures… establishments are responsible for ensuring their procedures for preventing contamination are effective.” As far as taking tissue samples, according to the rule, “establishments would need to determine the frequency and type of sampling that would be sufficient to demonstrate that they are maintaining process control.” In other words, the plants get to determine their own safety practices across the board. After seeing Food Inc., Fast Food Nation, and numerous other documentaries about the industrial food system, we might want to question if self-regulation is such a good idea here.

4. USDA Inspectors Will Look at More Plant Data and Fewer Chickens

Instead of being placed throughout the line, inspectors would be placed at one point pre-chill to visually inspect carcasses for fecal contamination. Their other duties would be offline performing duties such as reviewing plant records and test results to make sure the plant maintains process control for food safety and sanitation and taking samples for salmonella and campylobacter.

5. What They Don’t See Can Hurt You

The sorters employed by the plant who will be doing the work formerly done by trained FSIS inspectors will be required to look for carcasses with seticemia/toxemia (blood infection) while trimming the birds, but will not be required to look inside the birds. When this practice was questioned during the initial comment period for the new program, the FSIS responded that these diseases are identifiable from examination of the outside of the carcass alone. But, this guide  to identifying poultry diseases notes that there are several signs to look for when identifying a bird infected with septicemia at slaughter time. In addition to looking at the outside of the carcass for discoloration, these include hemorrhages on the heart, liver, kidneys, muscles, and membranes; and swollen liver, spleen, and kidneys.

USDA has three stated reasons for the “modernizing” poultry inspections: saving taxpayer dollars, improving food safety, and increasing efficiency. Fewer paid inspectors will obviously save money, faster line speeds will increase efficiency (at the expense of workers) but there is no way we can be sure that replacing food safety inspectors with untrained workers, and allowing the industry to make up its own rules will make the poultry we buy any safer.

If you agree, you have until May 29 to leave a comment.

Image: USDA.gov

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.