National Consumers League

A plea to USDA, stop playing chicken with our poultry

By Michell K. McIntyre, Outreach Director, Labor and Worker Rights Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a scathing report on the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service’s (FSIS) pilot program for overhauling the nation’s chicken and turkey inspection regulations.

While the report focused on the food safety risks of program there are worker safety concerns as well. The poultry industry and USDA hope to roll out the regulation changes nationwide as a “modernization” to the current inspection model. The pilot, part of the HAACP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), and USDA have been sharply criticized by food and worker safety groups, including NCL, because the proposed changes increase public health risks and the safety of plant employees.

The changes would replace government trained federal inspectors with untrained private plant employees and increase the speed of inspection to 175 birds per minute – 3 birds per second. The report finds that USDA “has not thoroughly evaluated the performance of each of the pilot projects over time [15 years] even though the agency stated it would do so when it announced the pilot projects.” GAO also accuses the program of using “snapshots of data” instead of comprehensive figures reflecting all data from the entire duration of the pilot during their analysis. FSIS’s own testing has shown that some plants in the pilot program are failing to detect foodborne illness, including salmonella.

Food and worker safety groups have not been alone in calling attention to this egregious regulation change. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have been sounding the alarm on the Hill. "Our food safety system is being 'modernized' at the expense of worker safety and public health," said Rep. DeLauro, who had also previously raised concerns about the rule with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The proposed rule has long been a problem, with 10 percent of chicken plants in a related program recently failing a round of salmonella testing." It’s time for the USDA to stop playing chicken with our health, halt this ill-conceived pilot program and scrap this so-called “modernization.”