WASHINGTON, October 10, 2013—The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) intends to enact new nationwide poultry inspection procedures that will slash the number of government inspectors, turn over numerous safety inspection duties to factory employees, increase line speeds, and expand the use of chemicals.
While predicted to save the government $30 million per year—mostly at the price of putting 800 USDA inspectors out of work—these revised regulations rely on questionable data to claim that turning over inspection duties to companies actually makes our food safer.
Specifically, the revised regulations would adopt pilot programs known as HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), which have been in place in 29 chicken and turkey slaughterhouses and 5 hog slaughterhouses since 1998.
Under the current poultry inspection system, USDA inspectors are stationed along the processing line to spot food safety and other consumer protection issues, removing unacceptable carcasses from the line.
Additional USDA inspectors walk around the factory collecting samples for antimicrobial testing, performing safety checks to ensure that the birds are free from fecal matter, and confirming that the carcasses meet quality standards that do not affect safety such as being free from bruises, feathers, etc.
Under the HIMP poultry system, however, lines are sped up and factory employees perform inspections, while USDA inspectors conduct a sampling of the product at the end of the line by randomly selecting and testing a number of birds every hour during each shift.
“USDA inspectors receive extensive training to protect public health in poultry facilities, but there is no similar requirement for company employees to receive training before they assume these inspection responsibilities in the proposed privatized inspection system,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group. “USDA’s proposal to shift this public health responsibility to company employees is a budget-cutting maneuver that puts consumers at risk.”
To support the new regulations, the USDA accompanied its proposed rule change with a 49-page document claiming the new rules would operate as well of better than the current system while saving the government over $90 million over three years.
However, an embarrassing audit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released in September concluded that the USDA did not thoroughly evaluate whether the three pilot programs were meeting their purpose.
Among the worst criticisms were that despite having data for over a decade of the programs, USDA analyzed 2–year snapshots. It also failed to analyze data from turkey farms and just applied the data collected from chicken farms. Further, in analyzing plant efficiency, GAO auditors found that USDA used data from a 20-year-old study and data collected from plants over 11 years ago.
The GAO concluded that because the USDA relied on old and unacceptable data, its conclusion that the HIMP pilot programs would perform as well or better than the current system in ensuring food safety and improving efficiency is questionable.
Given the “severe limitations” in the USDA’s evaluation of the pilot programs, GAO recommends more disclosure, data collection and analysis by USDA before the rules are put into effect nationwide.
Predicted to save the federal government $30 million a year and the poultry industry over $256 million, USDA’s announcement that it would extend HIMP to most of the country’s 239 chicken and 96 turkey slaughterhouses by the end of 2013 and present a final version of rules for hog slaughterhouses by March of 2014 raises a number of concerns.
For one thing, increased line speeds (speeds would increase by about 25 percent) would make it difficult for employees to detect infected carcasses resulting in an increase in the use of chemical baths and sprays to remove microbial pathogens, feces, and other contaminants.
In fact, the proposed rules ensure that—at least poultry—will be treated with more chemicals under the new rules. Instead of removing visibly contaminated carcasses from the production line as is currently the practice, the proposed regulations allow contaminated carcasses to remain on the line and treat all carcasses—contaminated or not—with “automatic bird washers and antimicrobial spraying or drenching equipment” (see p. 4432).
Chemicals most commonly used in poultry production are chlorine, ammonia, and peracetic acid.
According to the Washington Post, there are no independent studies of the possible side effects that this enhanced use of chemicals have on consumers who eat these products, but there is certainly growing evidence that it poses several dangers to USDA inspectors and poultry workers including asthma, severe respiratory problems, burns, rashes, and other effects.
Additionally, evidence shows that as far as foodborne illness and other contaminants, HIMP plants are among the worst performers.
Using a Freedom of Information Act request, Food and Water Watch (FWW) analyzed documents obtained from companies participating in the pilot program. It found that HIMP company employees miss many defects in carcasses, the most common being “dressing defects such as feathers, oil glands, trachea, and bile,” with chicken plants having a 64 percent average rate of error in this category and turkey plants reaching 87 percent.
Within the documents it analyzed, FWW found that 90% of all non-compliance reports filed by the plants were for fecal contamination that employees failed to identify and remove.
The situation is even worse in hog slaughterhouses, where only five companies have participated in the pilot program. According to a report by Kimberly Kindy in the Washington Post, three of the slaughterhouses participating in the pilot program were ranked among the country’s worst offenders for health and safety violations, with one of the pilot plants having the worst record in the nation.
Finally, the USDA is allowing imports from companies overseas that implement HIMP-like protocols with dubious results. Last year a Canadian company using HIMP recalled 8.8 million pounds of beef and beef products—2.5 million pounds had already made it to the U.S. market. There have been similar occurrences with at least 11 shipments of meat products from four Australian plants, according to Kindy.
It is alarming to think that a system already known for its relaxed standards is being relaxed even further.
“In short, the Obama administration has been pushing a deregulatory sop to a powerful industry based on a shoddy analysis,” writes Tom Philpott for Mother Jones. “Indeed, of all the Obama administration’s disappointing moves on agriculture policy…the most craven of all may be the aggressive push to make these changes.”
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