Mahesh Kumar/AP

Proposal to change poultry slaughter process under renewed scrutiny

Twenty-three groups and 16 individuals urge USDA to withdraw plan.

More than 30 groups and individuals representing consumer, labor and public health interests urged the U.S. Agriculture Department to withdraw its proposal to alter its poultry inspection process.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service wants to expand a pilot program in which inspectors examine 175 birds per minute, rather than the current rate of 35 birds per minute. A federal inspector remains part of the process in the pilot program, but only at the end of the poultry inspection line. Expansion of the program could result in the loss of up to 1,000 federal inspector jobs.

Allowing private poultry inspectors to check and discard carcasses earlier in the slaughter and production process could provide plants greater flexibility to develop their own procedures for condemning contaminated carcasses, the proposal said.

Chicken inspectors represented by the American Federation of Government Employees first complained about USDA’s proposed change last spring on the grounds it would replace federal inspectors and hasten poultry line inspection to unsafe speeds.

A coalition of 16 individuals and 23 groups, including the Center for Food Safety, the Consumer Federation of America and OMB Watch, has joined AFGE in opposition. The petition the group signed cites food safety and labor concerns similar to those AFGE raised earlier this year. The group urges USDA in its petition to withdraw the proposal “until these issues and others can be adequately addressed.”

The petition particularly emphasizes concerns about new standards for testing for defects and signs of food-borne pathogens such as salmonella.

“Moreover, employers might pressure plant employees to let as many birds pass as possible,” the group wrote. “As a result, there would likely be an increase in the rate of ‘defects’ such as bruises, scabs, bile and ingesta on the carcasses.”

The group also said USDA’s decision-making process lacked transparency.

“While the poultry inspection program does need improving, the proposal was developed with limited public input,” the group wrote. “USDA did not consult with its inspection advisory committee prior to issuing its proposal; nor were public meetings held to solicit the views of the public before the proposal was announced.”

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service spokesman Neil Gaffney said the agency was still reviewing the more than 2,200 comments it received on the proposal earlier this year. He could not comment further on the agency’s plans or response to the petition.

The coalition said the proposed increase in slaughter line speeds could contribute to higher rates of repetitive motion injuries among poultry plant workers. The groups also were concerned the proposed changes do not mandate training plant employees who would replace federal government inspectors, noting, “USDA whistleblowers have commented that plant workers with insufficient training often overlook things.”

Federal inspectors receive about three years of training to learn how to examine carcasses for fecal matter, disease and other contamination. An FSIS spokesman previously told Government Executive that under the pilot program, private inspectors would receive four weeks of training in addition to any training they may already have.