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Watchdog Cries Foul Over Poultry Inspection

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said the U.S. Department of Agriculture used bad data to justify new poultry inspection rules.

A government poultry inspector examines chickens on a production line.

Photo: Alice Welch, USDA

A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector examines chickens at the Holmes poultry slaughterhouse in Nixon, Texas.

According to a government report issued last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) used outdated data and sloppy procedures to test controversial proposed changes in the way the country inspects poultry. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the agency had not considered enough data from its ten-year pilot project, and had failed to adequately demonstrate some claims it used in promoting the new methods.

Flawed And Limited

Three pilot projects were launched in 1998 to test new inspection procedures that the USDA says are long overdue. But critics complain the changes would only mean faster, more dangerous production lines; allow industry inspectors to take over positions held by government inspectors; and drastically reduce the number of inspectors.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a longtime advocate of more stringent food safety measures and chair of the Senate subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, Poultry, Marketing and Agriculture Security, asked auditors to look into the USDA’s pilot program.

In a letter responding to the audit, Gillibrand said the agency’s study was “deeply flawed and had significant limitations,” and called for proposed rules based on the USDA pilot program to be suspended because the proposed changes were “not formulated on a strong scientific basis and assumptions made in the proposed rule may not be correct.” She also blasted the agency for failing to disclose weaknesses in their study.

The GAO saw through the euphemistically named ‘modernization’ proposal and confirmed our fears that FSIS does not have the scientific basis to justify privatizing poultry inspection.

Sloppy Data

In a phone interview, the GAO’s director of natural resources and environment Alfredo Gomez said the USDA only used data from a couple of two-year periods in its assessment.

“This is a pilot project that went on for more than ten years. Why couldn’t they use data from the whole time period?” he said. Gomez added that some of the information used in the study was out of date. “One thing that we’re asking the USDA to disclose is that they’re including data in at least one study that was more than 20 years old.”

The audit also said the USDA compared incompatible data to determine that plants participating in the pilot project had fewer cases of salmonella in the inspected birds.

The GAO recommended that the USDA publicly disclose all of the weaknesses in its assessment. The auditors did not recommend suspending progress on the rule or scrapping it altogether, because doing so would be beyond the scope of the watchdog’s assignment.

The USDA has agreed to comply with the disclosure recommendations.

Foxes In The Henhouse?

Opponents of the push to privatize inspection and speed production cheered the GAO’s audit, calling for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to withdraw the rule based on the pilot programs.

Patty Lovera, the assistant director of the consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch, said she was encouraged to see that the GAO “really came down on the USDA.”

In a statement, the group’s executive director Wenonah Hauter said, “The GAO saw through the euphemistically named ‘modernization’ proposal and confirmed our fears that FSIS does not have the scientific basis to justify privatizing poultry inspection.”

Over concerns for worker safety, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a 72-page petition this week calling for more regulation of work speeds in meat and poultry production lines. The center interviewed more than 300 workers who participated in the USDA’s pilot project, founding that 78 percent believed their jobs were less safe under the new procedures.

Pushback

Despite a poor report card, the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, Elizabeth Hagen, defended the agency’s pilot program – and the new rules based on it.

“By revising current procedures and removing outdated regulatory requirements that do not help combat food borne illness, the result will be a more efficient and effective use of taxpayers dollars,” she said. In a blog post on the USDA website, she said that “while an initial scan of the press coverage may lead you to believe that GAO discredits this proposal, that is not the case.”

She points out that the GAO found only a few faults with the USDA’s research, and made “just two” recommendations, both of which the USDA agreed to fulfill.

Read More:

  • GAO Report Questions USDA Plans To Change Poultry Inspection Program (Food Safety News)
  • Report: Not So Fast On Chicken Processing Changes, USDA (Politico)
  • New USDA Poultry Inspection Procedures Are Based On Bad Data, Government Report Says (Washington Post)
  • More Disclosure  And Data Needed To Clarify Impact Of  Changes To Poultry And Hog Inspections (GAO)
Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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