Food Safety On the Line

Amanda Palleschi/Govexec.com

 

Before he became an advocate for food inspection workers and a proponent for consumer food safety, Stan Painter worked in commercial slaughterhouses as a chicken grader and quality control agent. He remembers seeing workers put condemned meat back on the line labeled as “edible product,” and he recalls managers telling rank-and-file employees to keep quiet about contamination. “If the plant tells you to falsify the paperwork, and you don’t falsify the paperwork, they are going to fire you,” he says.

He does not believe all slaughterhouses are bad and accepts it’s a tall order to execute best practices on every bird, every time. But Painter and many of the federal inspectors he represents as chairman of the American Federation of Government Employees National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals believe an Agriculture Department proposal aimed at saving money could make an already imperfect system worse.

USDA officials want to expand a program that allows processing plants to replace some federal poultry inspectors with their own hires. The endeavor began as a pilot at 20 chicken and five turkey slaughterhouses in the Southeast and Southwest in 1998. In January, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service proposed adding about 200 facilities, mostly in the same regions. 

Opponents argue the program jeopardizes safety in part by hastening the chicken inspection process. Under traditional methods, birds move down the line at a rate of 140 per minute, with two inspectors on each side examining them. Under the pilot, this would increase to 175 birds per minute and federal inspectors would not be involved until later in the process, as a final quality check. The program’s expansion could result in the loss of 800 to 1,000 federal inspector jobs through attrition, though this is not something union and consumer food safety group protesters chose to highlight when they took to bullhorns and donned chicken costumes outside USDA headquarters in March. Instead, they emphasized the food safety concerns.Opponents of the pilot say the remaining federal inspectors would be permitted to take only 80 carcasses off the line for closer inspection per shift, from among hundreds of thousands. But Ali Almanza, Food Safety Inspection Service administrator, says an inspector can stop the line at any time. In fact, a routine sampling requirement actually increases the number of carcasses given a second look under the pilot program, he says. 

Opponents also express concern about the qualifications of their would-be commercial replacements. Federal inspectors receive about three years of training to examine carcasses for fecal matter, disease and other contamination that can lead to food-borne illnesses. Some fear private inspectors would not receive adequate training. But Almanza said under the pilot, federal and private inspectors are “very knowledgeable” and would receive four additional weeks of training.

Still, the new process could weaken critical controls, says Tony Corbo, a legislative representative for the consumer rights group Food and Water Watch. “Whether you’re trained or not, you’re not going to be able to catch stuff,” he says. USDA argues the change would be good for both consumers and taxpayers. According to March congressional testimony by Undersecretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen, expanding the pilot would save taxpayers more than $90 million during the first three years and could lower production costs by $256 million annually.

Officials also say the current poultry inspection system is outdated. Like Painter, Almanza is a former FSIS inspector. In his view, the poultry inspection process hasn’t evolved much since the Eisenhower administration, and should change to reflect the increasing uniformity of slaughtered chickens and decreased risk of contamination. “It’s like having 99 [white] pingpong balls on a table and one black one,” Almanza says. “[Defects] are that easy to pick out because there is so much uniformity.”

The debate is more than a decade old: AFGE and other groups challenged FSIS when the pilot began, arguing it violated federal regulations requiring federal inspectors rather than plant employees to conduct final examinations. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ultimately ruled that a modified version of the original pilot complied with federal regulations. 

Under the compromise, FSIS can require faster line speeds since private employees must sort defective carcasses prior to federal inspection. Regulations stipulate what must be inspected and by whom, but do not clearly lay out “exactly what an inspection is,” documents from the appeals court stated. 

FSIS and watchdog groups like the Government Accountability Project and Food and Water Watch provide contradictory analyses of the pilot. Food and Water Watch’s review, conducted via Freedom of Information Act requests, finds some of the plants in the pilot let many birds with defects through the line; a government-sanctioned analysis points instead to lower rates of fecal contamination at pilot plants versus traditional ones.

The agency is gathering public comment on the expansion. If officials decide to move forward, then the changes will take at least one year to implement and plants will be able to choose whether or not to sign up.

Phyllis McKelvey, a retired USDA poultry inspector who worked on the first pilot project in Guntersville, Ala., said she believes the companies involved did their best to maintain quality control standards. But she is concerned that might not continue if the pilot becomes policy. 

“All they do on the pilot is they sit and watch the birds go flying by,” she says. The program is “going to be a total nightmare” if it is expanded nationwide, she adds.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.