McClatchy Newspapers’ Lindsay Wise reports in two stories today (here and here) on the USDA’s proposal to “modernize” the poultry inspection process. The proposal, part of the Obama Administration’s offerings in the name of eliminating burdensome regulations, will eliminate hundreds of Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors, allow line speeds to increase to 175 birds per minute, and cede to the poultry companies the task of spotting diseased and defective birds. USDA estimates the financial benefits to the poultry industry will exceed $250 million annually. Without those pesky inspectors looking at the chicken carcasses, the companies will be able to speed up their production lines and churn our more chicken. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack also likes the proposal because fewer inspectors, means fewer salaries. He’ll get a feather in his cap for reducing spending at his agency by about $90 million over three years.
But as Stan Painter, the chairman of the union that represents USDA inspectors, reminded Lindsay Wise what the higher ups at USDA seem to be forgetting. The mission of the FSIS is food safety.
“Federal poultry inspectors protest that they can’t see bruises, blisters, tumors, pus, broken bones and other signs of tainted birds when carcasses fly by them at a rate of a third of a second. They can’t look inside the birds for bile, partially digested feed or fecal matter, or examine entrails for diseases such as avian leukosis – contaminants that inspectors say can be disgusting at best and dangerous at worst. ‘The rule continuously talks about how much money per pound the plants are going to save by going into this process,’ said Painter. ‘Why the hell is an agency concerned about the money that the plant’s going to save? I realize that’s a stakeholder, but our focus should be food safety.’”
Painter’s union, the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, is just one of many groups who oppose the USDA proposal. Those groups include STOP Foodborne Illness, Consumer Federation of America, Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, National Consumers League, and MomsRising. USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, Elisabeth Hagen, MD, insists the rule will bring poultry inspection into the 21st century and points critics to the agency’s risk assessment. Those critics note, however, that that agency document shows the new system would do little to reduce contamination from Salmonella and Campylobactor. Those are the two pathogens most associated with illnesses caused by contaminated poultry.
As we’ve written before (here, here, here), this new inspection system will also have dire consequences also for poultry plant workers. They already suffer excess risk of work-related injury and disability. The power relationships and other social conditions in poultry plants (e.g., low wages, job insecurity, immigrant and African American workers, largely female workforce, unorganized) makes these workers particularly vulnerable to abuse. All of the epidemiological data finds that the work environment, including repetitive work and line speed, contributes to ill health and injury among poultry plant workers. The USDA’s proposal just piles onto their grim situation.
USDA’s Hagen wrongly insists there’s no evidence to substantiate that increased line speeds will increase injuries.
“We would never put forward something that would inadvertently put others in harm’s way.”
But that’s exactly what USDA will do if it finalizes this proposal.
Moreover, USDA is obligated under several Presidential Executive Orders (EO) to assess the adverse consequences of its activities, including regulatory actions. EO 12898, for example, directs agencies to examine how their work may disproportionally adversely affect low-income and minority populations. Poultry plant workers are an excellent example of a low-income and minority population. To-date, USDA has failed to do so. Another EO (EO 13563), directs agencies, before a rule is proposed, to “seek the views of those who are likely to be affected.” USDA failed to solicit in advance the views of poultry plant workers or of representatives speaking on their behalf. Such individuals could easily have described the impact of increasing line speeds to as fast as 175 birds per minute. As one worker told me, “Es ilogico,” and succinctly explained why.
Dr. Hagen’s claim: “We simply don’t have statutory authority” to address poultry worker safety is a cop out. To-date, USDA has dodged its duty to address the likely consequences of this “modernization” rule on the tens of thousands of workers employed in the industry.
In “New USDA rule would speed poultry-processing lines, worrying inspectors” McClatchy’s Lindsay Wise captures the USDA’s and poultry industry’s love-fest over this proposed rule. It sounds too good to be true, and it is. Both refer to a pilot program that’s been in place since 1999. But that program has been roundly criticized by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Many of the key recommendations made by GAO in December 2001, including the need for more robust data to determine whether the pilot system is actually more effective than traditional inspections for identifying contamination, have not been addressed adequately by USDA.
Even if one disagrees with the GAO’s findings, results from the 13 year old pilot program cannot foretell what will occur if it is implemented industry-wide. “The pilot was run in a very limited number of select plants, some of which were switched out because they couldn’t maintain [the food safety] standards,” explained attorney Felicia Nestor, a consultant with the Government Accountability Project (GAP). GAP is a not-for-profit organization that supports corporate and government whistleblowers, including USDA inspectors.
Food safety advocates don’t take solace in the National Chicken Council’s claim that poultry companies “have every incentive to not let a product with a quality defect into the marketplace.” Felicia Nestor explained that the pilot plants “push the limits of the 80% defect rate allowed under the program.” USDA meat and poultry inspectors have seen it all. Despite the industry’s claims, USDA inspectors know first-hand, said Nestor, “how much defective and diseased product goes into ground, processed or cooked product.”
The USDA is expected to submit for review before the end of the year its final rule on “modernizing” poultry inspection to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Food safety, workers safety and others in the public health community will be paying close attention to the White House’s decision about this rule. Will the Obama Administration err on the side of protecting workers and food safety? Or will the Obama Administration put poultry industry profits, in the name of reducing regulatory burdens, ahead of public health?