by Kim Krisberg
After nearly three decades as a USDA food safety inspector, Stan Painter tells me he now feels like "window dressing standing at the end of the line as product whizzes by."
Painter, a poultry inspector with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) stationed in the northeast corner of Alabama in the town of Collinsville, is a first-hand witness to USDA's recently proposed rule to speed up poultry inspection lines while simultaneously reducing the number of federal food inspectors and turning over much of the food safety oversight to plant employees, who could have little to no training. Painter says he's been inside about 10 poultry plants already testing out the new rule under the auspices of USDA's HACCP Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) — an effort the agency claims will "produce a flexible, more efficient, fully integrated meat and poultry inspection system" and "yield increased food-safety and other benefits to consumers." Painter, however, disagrees.
"On occasion (you can detect food safety hazards) with the new speeds, but it really has to jump out and scream at you," said Painter, who also serves as chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals. "It can be done...but I am saying that it's not as likely."
USDA's proposed rule to "modernize" the poultry inspection system would allow plants to speed the inspection line up to 175 birds per minute — that gives inspectors about a third of a second per bird to check for feces, tumors, defects, disease or other factors that could make consumers sick. (Read more on the rule and see what an animated version of one carcass per third of a second actually looks like here). Conventionally, plants could run poultry lines as fast as 140 carcasses per minute, but there were at least four FSIS inspectors on the line responsible for 35 birds each.
Painter says that at the plant he's currently stationed at, which is participating in HIMP, the line was averaging up to 181 birds a minute with two plant-employed sorters and Painter at the end of the line. He says: "There's no humanly way possible two people can look inside 90 birds a minute." After the proposed modernization rule was published, USDA told the plant to cut its speed down to 175 birds per minute, Painter reports. Not that that makes much of a difference.
"It's totally hands-off inspection," he told me. "Actually, it's not inspection, it's visualization. If you can't touch them, how can you inspect them? You can't even see inside the carcass."
So, how can a plant meet basic food safety standards with less inspection? One way is dousing the poultry in chemicals. In fact, Painter told me that USDA encourages the use of chemicals. One chemical is called peracetic acid, an antimicrobial agent used to reduce the risk of food-borne pathogens salmonella and campylobacter. The problem is that after the carcasses are sprayed down with peracetic acid and then put in the chiller, depending on the chlorine concentration of the chiller, "it can be like having a bucket of bleach under your nose," Painter said. He said that it's not unusual to hear from poultry plant workers who say they're becoming ill after exposure to the chemical combination.
"These chemicals keep getting pumped into the plant, but they don't increase ventilation," he said. Painter predicts that if current line speeds stay in place, he thinks plants will increase their reliance on chemicals to make up for inspection gaps. Painter said he'd "bet my last nickel on it."
Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food program at Food & Water Watch, said he and his colleagues suspect that poultry plants manipulate the levels of chemicals depending on when FSIS conducts salmonella testing. Testing kits are sent directly to the plant, not to the inspector, Corbo told me, so the plant gets a convenient heads-up. So, while USDA says that the new "modernized" inspection system is leading to reduced rates of salmonella, Corbo said plants can easily manipulate their systems to prepare for FSIS testing. He also noted that while industry says the chemical residue left on the poultry is fairly small, "I don't think anyone's doing any long-term testing to see if that's the case."
In 2011, Corbo filed a Freedom of Information Act request to view data coming out of the HIMP plants. He found that plant-employed inspectors, as opposed to FSIS inspectors, where not upholding food safety standards. According to a Food & Water Watch news release, "the records show that bile, sores, scabs, feathers, and digestive tract tissue are often not being properly removed from chicken carcasses." Corbo said that the overwhelming majority of noncompliance reports coming from HIMP plants and filed by FSIS inspectors are for fecal contamination in the cavity of the bird. But if the FSIS inspector can only truly inspect a small fraction of the carcasses that speed by on the line each day, "we don't really know how many of those carcasses actually got into commerce," he said.
"Essentially, the attitude of the industry is that chicken isn't something people eat raw...it has to be properly cooked," Corbo said. "They're saying it's really the responsibility of the consumer, which we think is ridiculous. The industry has a responsibility here too. ...(With this proposed rule), we're essentially leaving it up to one (FSIS) inspector at the end of the line and chemicals to prevent food-borne illness from entering the food supply."
Painter, who himself is struggling with health problems he believes stems from food tainted with salmonella or campylobacter, says he's not optimistic that there's enough opposition to stop the proposed modernization rule. His advice? "Wash it, clean it, cook it thoroughly."
"I've worked for poultry prior to working for (USDA)," he said. "I'm not anti-industry...but we can't expect a plant to regulate itself when a dollar value is involved."
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for the last decade.