Reality check on USDA’s claims about its plan to privatize poultry inspection

Several recent newspaper editorials have gotten under USDA’s skin. Editors at the Charlotte Observer, Raleigh News ObserverBellingham (WA) Herald and Gaston (NC) Gazette are skeptical that the USDA’s plan to “modernize” the poultry slaughter inspection process is a wise move.

In “Fed’s proposed shift in poultry rules troubling,” the Charlotte Observer’s  editorial board wrote this on January 20:

“Warning horns should blast full force around the Obama administration approving a change in federal law to replace most federal inspectors on poultry processing lines with company workers who would watch for problems. Worker advocates’ concerns that such a change would be a risk to both food and worker safety have considerable merit.   … A 2008 Observer series about working conditions in the poultry industry highlighted the problems of allowing companies to self-report on injuries at their plants. Our series found employers failing to report injuries that they should, and workers afraid they’d be fired if they reported such injuries. This change could have both following the same pattern with troubling consequences for all of us.”

On Janaury 24 in “Don’t let poultry-processing industry police itself,” Bellingham’s editors wrote:

“Somewhere in that proposal is a joke about letting foxes guard henhouses. We’ll leave that to the Jon Stewarts of the world, but there’s nothing funny about what the proposed changes could mean for American consumers.  …Many workers in the industry suffer from repetitive-motion conditions and other work-related injuries but often are reluctant to report them because they need the job so badly. Speeding up processing lines is likely to exacerbate that problem.”

The acting Under Secretary for Food Safety, Brian Ronholm, quickly responded with a letter to the editor. Each of his statements appear below, broken up by my offering of a reality check.

Ronholm: The Observer falsely asserts that USDA’s proposal to modernize poultry inspection would reduce federal oversight of food safety at the expense of consumers and workers.

Reality check: For the last several years, the Obama Administration’s proposed budget for USDA would eliminate 800 poultry inspectors. How does that not reduce federal oversight of food safety?

Ronholm: A 15-year pilot program demonstrates that the proposal would enhance oversight, prevent at least 5,000 food-borne illnesses per year, and not adversely impact worker safety.

Reality check:  In August 2013, the Government Accountability Office chastised USDA for asserting that its pilot project demonstrates its proposed changes will be more effective than the current system. GAO found that USDA didn’t even collect and analyze its data to draw such a conclusion. GAO launched the same criticism at USDA in a 2001 report.

And,

Reality check:  USDA ignores the evidence about the harsh and dangerous conditions experienced by poultry plant workers. Musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, plague poultry workers, and line speeds in the plants are a key contributor for these injuries. USDA’s proposal will allow production  line speeds to increase from 140 to 175 birds per minute.

Ronholm: It would require industry to prevent contamination and conduct testing at two points to ensure pathogens such as Salmonella are being controlled; currently there are no such requirements.

Reality check:  USDA’s plan is for the poultry industry to come up with its own standards for testing pathogens. The industry will even make the decision on how much salmonella is acceptable. On top of that– because the standards will be voluntary–USDA would have no authority to enforce them.

Ronholm: This enhanced inspection process would allow USDA inspectors to focus on critical food safety tasks that would result in lower prevalence of contamination and greater compliance with sanitation requirements.

Reality check:  USDA still has not explained how this “enhanced inspection process” is going to occur.  How many more sanitation checks will occur per eight hour shift? How many more samples will be taken for food borne pathogens? How many USDA inspectors will be assigned in each plant per shift to perform these additional tasks? Will USDA have the authority to take action against the plant for violating voluntary food safety and wholesomeness standards?

I know the views of newspaper editors may not sway the White House into telling the USDA to ditch its plan. But perhaps the Obama Administration will be convinced by such calls from the Congressional Black Caucus. The group’s chair, Marcia Fudge (D-OH), made clear their position on USDA’s plan. Quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Fudge said:

“Most of the people who work in these plants are women, and they are primarily women of color. We care most about the health of the employees. Right now, it is bad. It will just get worse if they increase the line speed.”

 

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