WASHINGTON — If the Obama administration gives the green light soon, fewer federal inspectors will be present in poultry processing plants and the lines will be allowed to speed up, a change that critics say could be risky for both food and worker safety.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who represents a state where poultry is a $13 billion industry, supports the inspection changes and has led a group of senators in urging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make them final.
By law, an inspector must check each poultry carcass for defects and visible contamination. The new plan would replace most federal inspectors on poultry processing lines with company workers who would watch for defects as chicken and turkey carcasses zip through. The move would mean more control over the inspection process for companies, enabling them to increase profits by processing birds faster.
Worker advocates say allowing the lines to move any faster would exacerbate the already-serious problem of hand, wrist and other injuries caused by repetitive motions. And food safety groups say that the federal government has yet to prove that the new inspection system would reduce the bacteria responsible for most food-borne illnesses.
Supporters counter that reliance on federal inspectors to look at each carcass for defects is outdated. A pilot program using plant employees for much of the quality-control process started in 1999. The program is now underway in 20 chicken and five turkey plants.
“Our poultry slaughter inspection standards are out of date, and the updates I have called for, along with a bipartisan group of senators, are science-based and have been extensively tested through pilot programs,” Hagan said by email in response to questions about the proposed rule.
None of the plants where the proposed new inspection system has been tested has been linked to major illnesses, she said, nor do Department of Labor statistics show an increase in worker injuries.
In a letter to Vilsack, Hagan argued that the rule change would reduce the number of food-borne illnesses and save taxpayers money. Other signers were Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Boozman of Arkansas, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, John Cornyn of Texas and Chuck Grassley of Iowa. The Democrats were Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mark Warner of Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Chris Coons of Delaware and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
The proposed inspection changes have been pending since January 2012. Opponents say they recently got word that they could soon be on a fast track for final approval, possibly by mid-February.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service “has found no evidence to suggest that worker safety would be impacted by the proposed rule,” said Cathy Cochran, a spokeswoman for the service. “In fact, the safety record in all poultry plants over the past 20 years has improved dramatically.”
But critics argue that the numbers aren’t solid. Injury statistics are based entirely on what employers report to the federal government, said Celeste Monforton, a science blogger and lecturer at the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services.
Many studies have found that employers don’t report all injuries as they should, nor do workers because they’re afraid of being fired, she said.
Hagan said she was “confident that adequate protections are in place as poultry lines move faster” once the rule takes effect. The USDA’s own peer-reviewed assessment found that the new inspection system would prevent 5,000 cases of food-borne illness per year
But the Government Accountability Office said in a report in August that the USDA was going ahead without proper data collection and evaluation needed to prove that food safety would be improved.