Controversy still stewing over chicken plant rules

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to pull most of its inspectors off production lines at poultry slaughter plants and allow the lines to run faster, but the proposal is going nowhere fast.

The changes, unveiled 15 months ago by the USDA and reported last year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have been delayed at least once by significant push-back from food safety advocates and the federal poultry inspectors union.

The shift could have a profound impact on Georgia, the nation’s number one poultry producer, where 18 plants kill 1.2 billion birds a year for meat consumption. The Georgia Poultry Federation supports the proposal.

Federal officials say having four government employees inspect dead birds on a conveyor belt – as is now the case – is no way to spot the microorganisms that make people sick. The new system would shift all but one government inspector to other tasks more likely to detect potentially deadly pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter, they say.

But opponents complain that the new system, which calls for company-paid inspectors to replace those federal employees on the production lines, hands too much oversight to the poultry producers. Plants would be allowed to design their own safety plans, rather than the government imposing the same regimen on every plant.

Federal inspectors would monitor the plants’ safety procedures and perform testing for pathogens, but critics worry that the USDA will reduce the number of government inspectors altogether. Finally, they say, speeding up the slaughter lines will make it virtually impossible to properly inspect the birds.

Switching to the new system, which has been under discussion for decades, would be voluntary. But the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service said it expects most plants to adopt it if it’s approved.

The agency estimates the change would save the chicken industry $256 million a year and taxpayers about $90 million over three years.

For now the controversy simmers.

Chris Waldrop, director of The Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America, said a USDA’s pilot program didn’t make it clear whether the proposed system will reduce the number of chickens sold that harbor salmonella and campylobacter.

“We don’t know if it will reduce illness or increase illness from those contaminants,” Waldrop said. “They just don’t have the data on that.”

USDA officials say a risk assessment showed that shifting inspectors from the slaughter lines to other food safety activities is likely to result in a reduction of 5,000 foodborne illnesses.

Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University Florida, said increasing the speed of the lines won’t compromise safety. He said some food scientists have supported that view for at least two decades.

“I don’t care how fast the birds are going, you can’t see microorganisms, and the problem is microorganisms, such as salmonella,” he said. “They’re what cause illnesses and death.”

The public comment period on the proposal is over. The USDA declined to say when — or if — it will implement the proposed change.

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