The U.S Department of Agriculture has rolled out sweeping changes to its poultry inspection regulations, the first major revision in more than a half century.
The new rules allow companies to adopt a controversial system that puts plant workers in charge of some types of inspection.
Production line speed has been capped at 140 birds per minute, which is less than industry groups wanted, but still faster than current averages.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a pilot project in 1998 to test the so-called HIMP system at 20 facilities.
Under HIMP, fewer federal inspectors oversee production, while company workers watch for defects, blemishes and fecal matter on the birds.
The new rules expand this pilot project to all poultry facilities. In a release, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the system “imposes stricter requirements on the poultry industry and places our trained inspectors where they can better ensure food is being processed safely.”
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Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the USDA used outdated data and sloppy procedures to test the program.
Food safety advocates are concerned about diminished government oversight and conflicts of interest from putting companies in charge of inspecting their own product.
Campylobacter and salmonella are the two most common pathogens carried on poultry products, and are top causes of food poisoning in the U.S. Neither of those are considered to be “adulterants” under current rules.
Tony Corbo, the senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, said he’s deeply skeptical of industry and USDA claims that the new rules will improve safety.
“[The USDA is] claiming they’re going to reduce the number of people who get sick by five-thousand. And it’s vague how they arrive at those numbers, but I have a feeling what this means is that the companies now, using this new system, are going to be dumping a lot more chemicals into their processing.”
Poultry plants use chlorine and trisodium phosphate to kill pathogens.
Some strains of campylobacter and salmonella have been found to be resistant to antibiotics. Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro and Louise Slaughter introduced a bill in June that would require the USDA to recall products contaminated with resistant strains.
Last month, chicken from Foster Farms in California spurred an outbreak of 634 cases of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg across 29 states and Puerto Rico. According to a press release from Representative Slaughter, the USDA delayed recalling the company’s products because salmonella isn’t considered to be an adulterant.
Corbo said increased line speed also puts workers at greater risk for repetitive motion injuries, which are already rampant in an industry that is only 30 percent unionized.
“You have a lot of minorities, a lot of Latino workers in these poultry plants,” he said, “and they suffer from cuts because lines are going so fast and they’re using knives to cut out so-called defects, but the hanging and manipulation of the chickens causes repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.”
Food and Water Watch has urged the USDA and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration to adopt standards to protect workers, which were not incorporated into the rules. The organization is also looking at legal action against the new regulations.