The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Thursday plans to overhaul a 50-year-old poultry plant inspection system, shifting from quality to food safety.
The old system from 1957 focused on visual inspections, that is, pulling birds aside that had bruises or other imperfections. New regulations call for more testing for pathogens like Salmonella and Campylobacter — true threats to consumers. Speaking to reporters, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the new rules, effective immediately, should reduce the annual 5,000 reported foodborne illnesses.
The changes include reducing the number of federal employees on inspection lines in chicken and turkey plants, from up to four to one, so that they may ensure proper prevention and testing for pathogens. USDA employees would also check for high quality sanitation practices in the facilities. The remaining plant employees on inspection lines will still be required to check up to 140 birds per minute. Initially, the USDA proposal called for up to 175 birds per minute, but regulators settled at the current number.
“We believe at the end of the day it will result in a safer product,” Vilsack told reporters Thursday, The Hill reported.
140 Birds Per Minute Still A Health Hazard For Workers
Food and labor advocates met the USDA’s announcement with staunch opposition. Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, said the Obama administration had “turned its back on workers.” The requisite number of inspected birds per minute, which remains at 140, would prove difficult for a smaller workforce on inspection lines. “The new inspection system will allow plants to operate their slaughtering and evisceration lines at speeds that have proven hazardous for workers,” Steinzor said in a statement. “It will pull federal inspectors off the processing line, ensuring that carcasses caked in blood, guts, and feathers whir by at the rate of 2.3 bird per second.” She added that the Southern Poverty Law Center showed reports of the “already harrowing musculoskeletal injuries” poultry plant workers have endured.
In a joint statement, Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said the fewer number of employees would also lead to more foodborne illness and consumers in the hospital, The Wall Street Journal reported. One of the most recent Salmonella outbreaks at the Foster Farms poultry plant in California, which ran from March to July of this year, sickened 634 people in 29 states and Puerto Rico, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although the USDA expects most poultry plants to opt in, companies still have the choice not to remove federal inspectors from processing lines. They must, however, leave government inspectors on the end of lines.