National consumer group calls move a “Gift to Industry”
Washington, D.C. — Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget a final rule that would dramatically reduce the number of trained USDA inspectors in poultry slaughter plants and replace them with company employees. The USDA estimated in the proposed rule that the industry will stand to gain $260 million annually because of increased production and fewer regulatory requirements with no guarantees of improved food safety.
“This rule, which essentially privatizes poultry inspections, serves up the huge gift of deregulation to the meat industry,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “If the White House acquiesces, it will be a disaster for workers and consumers who want to know that the poultry they are eating is safe.”
The rule was first proposed on January 27, 2012 and received over 175,000 public comments overwhelmingly opposed during the comment period. Earlier this year, over 100 groups sent a letter to President Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urging them to withdraw the rule and another 220,000 consumers expressed their opposition to the proposed rule. Occupational safety and worker justice communities also overwhelmingly oppose the rule.
The proposed rule would:
Permit chicken slaughter plants to increase line speeds to 175 birds per minute;
Leave only one USDA inspector on the slaughter line to inspect three chicken carcasses every second;
Turn over most inspection responsibilities to untrained company employees who would be beholden to their employers and not USDA or to consumers;
Turn over to the companies the responsibility of developing their own food safety standards with no input from USDA.
The proposed rule would not set enforceable performance standards to decrease the levels of pathogens on poultry, and it would not require that company employees be trained before assuming inspection responsibilities. Food & Water Watch believes it would not provide meaningful worker protections against unsafe and unhealthy working conditions in the poultry industry and increased line speeds.
USDA officials have said that “significant” changes have been made to the proposed rule, but they will not reveal what those changes are until the final rule is published in the Federal Register.
The independent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in August 2013 that evaluated a pilot project that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has been conducting in two-dozen poultry plants using this new inspection model. GAO came to the conclusion that the agency’s analyses of that pilot “raise questions about the validity of FSIS’ conclusion that an inspection system based on the pilot project would ensure equivalent, if not better, levels of food safety and quality than currently provided at plants not in the pilot program.” There is no indication that the shortcomings cited by the GAO have been resolved in the final rule.
In addition, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study in one poultry slaughter facility in 2014 and found poultry workers experienced a high incidence of musculoskeletal disorders from working in poultry slaughter and processing facilities. The Director of NIOSH was forced to refute publicly the misinterpretation of the study results by FSIS Administrator Alfred Almanza, who claimed that increasing line speeds would not have a negative impact on worker health and safety. The final rule will probably not address the issue of worker safety adequately.
Since USDA officials have stated that the proposed rule has been significantly changed, Food & Water Watch is calling on the Obama Administration to publish the revised rule now and open it up for public comment for 120 days and hold public meetings during that comment period – something the USDA refused to do when the rule was first proposed.
“USDA can’t be allowed to rush this rule through without thorough consideration,” said Hauter. “If we allow this controversial model in poultry, beef and pork are next. We can’t roll back our meat inspection system if we want to continue to have a safe food supply, and the USDA needs to hear that from stakeholders,” said Hauter.