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USDA Rule to Speed Up Poultry Inspections Concerns Food Safety Advocates

by Andrew Gripp, published

The 95 percent of Americans who eat chicken may want to take notice: the inspections regime for processing chickens and turkeys is likely to undergo major changes as the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) pushes onward in its expansion of a pilot program that will apply to all of the country's poultry processing plants.

The inspections process known as the HACCP Based Models Project (HIMP) involves reducing the number of federal inspectors by as much as 40 percent and transfers more of that responsibility to the companies themselves. The new rule also allows for faster line speeds – up from 140 chickens per minute under the old rules to as many as 175, or nearly 3 per second. Turkeys would speed through lines at 55 rather than 45 birds per minute.

More than 9 billion chickens and 300 million turkeys are killed in the U.S. each year.

One former inspector, Phyllis McKelvey,

told The Washington Post she fears that "the line speeds are so fast, they are not spotting contamination, like fecal matter, as the birds pass by."

The modernized HIMP process relies on other methods of sanitation.

“Their attitude is, let the chemicals do the work," McKelvey adds.

In an increasing number of plants, slaughtered chickens are bathed in several chemicals designed to kill pathogens like salmonella. To test whether the meat is safe for consumption, some birds are picked at random and placed in a solution to detect any residual pathogens. However, scientists question whether these solutions may be contaminating the samples and thus generating false results.

Consumer protection groups such as Food & Water Watch, the Consumer Federation of America, and the poultry inspectors’ union are asking the USDA to release the final version of the inspection rule to the public, which has thus far come under review -- and scrutiny -- from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for relying on incomplete and outdated data.

The HIMP pilot program began in the late 1990s and has been under review after a 15-year trial period. Currently, 29 processing plants -- including 19 for chickens, 5 for turkeys, and 5 for hogs -- are participating in the program. If the final rule is approved, the new poultry inspection regime would go into effect for the nation's 239 chicken and 96 turkey processing facilities.

A review of the program came back with mixed results.

Participants experienced an increase in efficiency. Poultry companies are in favor of the HIMP regime: the industry expects to save more than $250 million annually if the final rule goes into effect.

However, an assessment of the pilot program in the hog industry has left food safety advocates concerned. Three of the 5 hog plants under HIMP were listed among the top 10 worst offenders of health and safety regulations. There are 608 hog plants nationwide.

Food safety advocates point to instances of contamination coming from countries that already allow processors to scale back their reliance on federal regulators.

In 2012, for instance, a Canadian plant announced a recall of 2.5 million pounds of beef products sent to the United States because of an E. coli contamination. Also, nearly a dozen shipments of meat products from several Australian producers were intercepted by American authorities in recent years because they contained fecal matter and partly digested food, which can harbor deadly bacteria.

Critics of the inspection regime point to the risks to workers who experience various musculoskeletal disorders as a result of high-speed lines and who are also exposed to chemicals with undetermined effects. Inspectors across the country complain of developing rashes and breathing problems after working in some facilities.

A study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 78 percent of federal inspectors feel less safe working in the new, fast-paced, chemical-intensive environments.

The final version of the rule is currently being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Consumer groups are calling on the USDA to release the final version of the rule, which received over 175,000 public comments during the notice and comment stage. It is unclear what changes the FSIS made to its initial proposal following these comments.

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