USDA conspires with factory chicken producers to reduce inspections, speed factory output

Saturday, August 11, 2012 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: chicken factories, safety inspections, USDA

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(NaturalNews) The federal agency responsible for conducting food inspections has announced a new proposal to screen chickens for disease and contaminates, but the measure has some industry analysts concerned because it would reduce the number of inspectors at processing plants.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed change would mean inspectors at poultry plants would be reduced from four to one and instead rely more on plant employees to fill in and perform more inspection duties.

The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), said the changes would "ensure and even enhance the safety of the poultry supply by focusing our inspectors' efforts on activities more directly tied to improving food safety," agency spokesman Dirk Fillpot said in a statement.

The USDA says the measure is necessary to modernize food inspection while saving taxpayers and the poultry industry money. Rather than peering over production lines, remaining FSIS inspectors would instead focus on issues that pose the greatest health risks to the public, according to reports.

Food safety advocates are, well, crying fowl. They say the plan is filled with negative ramifications, mostly because they say the remaining FSIS inspectors will have virtually no time to inspect the billions of chickens processed each year. In a report about the proposed change, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution put that time at about one-third of a second, because in addition to reducing the number of inspectors, the proposal speeds up production lines by about 25 percent.

Also, they worry that the proposal will create a conflict of interest; in a bid to push profits even higher, advocates fear plant managers will skimp on any process - including the inspection process - that would increase expenditures.

"I went out and bought a food processor so we could make more vegetarian meals," Felicia Nestor, a food safety advocate and a consultant with the Government Accountability Project. "If the changes go into effect, my husband and I will no longer buy chicken."

Advocates say the plan could leave "gaping holes" in poultry safety inspection, and could wind up endangering the entire population; most Americans eat an average of 80 pounds of poultry a year.

Changes will save a little taxpayer money, but are they worth it?

The USDA has not said when the proposed changes would take effect. The agency also said that the proposals are voluntary, but industry analysts said all but the smallest plants would opt in so they could remain competitive, the AJC reported.

Among the changes:

-- Place plant workers in chicken and turkey farms on the conveyor belts where bad birds are taken off the line; currently four FSIS inspectors are on such lines, but again, the proposals reduce that number to just one.

-- Let plants decide how much training their workers need in order to be able satisfactorily spot diseased or defective birds.

-- Let plants speed up production lines, meaning that the sole FSIS inspector at the end of the line will have to visually inspect as many as 175 birds a minute (currently the maximum speed is 140 per minute, but remember, that is divided out over four inspectors, who inspect some 35 per minute).

In the era of trillion-dollar deficits, every little bit of savings the stewards of taxpayer money can squeeze out of the federal budget is appreciated. But in this case, it's a rounding error; the USDA projects the savings to taxpayers would only be about $90 million in three years.

Poultry plants, the agency says, are bigger winners; they will reap savings of $256 million annually.

Fewer regulations, sure, but less incentive to do the right thing

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is critical.

"All they've done is remove regulations. They haven't replaced them with better standards," she told the Atlanta paper.

David Barrett, a federal inspector assigned to poultry plants in Gainesville, said he worked in plants as a young man, and knows how the system operates.

"They don't like it when we slow the lines down," he said. "You think they're going to allow their own people to do it?"

That sentiment was summed up in a June Los Angeles Times story about the proposed changes.

"Unlike bona fide government inspectors, plant employees will be all too aware that whenever they pull a product off the line, they're costing money to the company that employs them," the paper said. "So even if the owners and managers are scrupulous about not pressuring employees, there's a built-in incentive to let marginal problems pass through."


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