USDA will not withdraw poultry inspections rule

Farm Forum

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will not withdraw its proposed rule to make changes to poultry inspections, Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen told Agweek, even though the Government Accountability Office issued a report Sept. 4 criticizing the way FSIS has handled pilot projects that led up to the rule.

“This is about public health,” Hagen said, noting that the rule is based on more than the poultry inspection pilot projects that GAO analyzed. “We are focusing on the things that matter, not things we thought mattered in the ’50s. We’ve got to reverse the trend on salmonella and this is a big step toward it.”

Hagen noted that the GAO did not suggest that FSIS withdraw the rule and that the agency agreed with the GAO that it should disclose the limitations of the data and evaluate a pilot project on hog inspections. Hagen also noted that FSIS has not made any decisions about moving forward with a rule to change hog inspections.

The GAO said stakeholders did not have adequate information to comment on the rule. Hagen confirmed that the comment period is closed, but also noted that the proposal is still at USDA and will go through further drafting before it is sent to the Office of Management and Budget.

FSIS Administrator AL Almanza also wrote a blog for Food Safety News defending the rule and FSIS posted the blog on its website.

No thorough evaluation

The GAO study was requested by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and said USDA did not thoroughly evaluate the performance of pilot projects to change the system of poultry inspection before concluding that an inspection system based on the pilot projects would ensure equivalent, if not better, levels of food safety and quality than currently provided at plants not in the pilot project.

USDA’s FSIS inspectors provide continuous inspection of each meat and poultry carcass and its parts that enter interstate commerce, but in January 2012, USDA proposed a rule that it says would make inspections more efficient by allowing plant personnel to do some of the inspections.

The rule was based on three pilot projects that began in 1998.

GAO concluded that USDA’s lack of evaluation and disclosure that there were limits to the information resulted in stakeholders not having complete and accurate information to inform their comments on the proposed rule and its potential impacts.

Gillibrand chairs the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, Poultry, Marketing and Agriculture Security.

“The GAO saw through the euphemistically named ‘modernization’ proposal and confirmed our fears that FSIS does not have the scientific basis to justify privatizing poultry inspection,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter.

Hauter also noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center and a coalition of civil rights groups filed a formal petition urging the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue new work speed standards in meat and poultry plants and for FSIS to reconsider the proposed rule.

“For FSIS to truly ‘modernize’ poultry inspection, the Obama administration needs to get the legal authority from Congress to hold companies accountable for putting contaminated food into commerce, not deregulate inspection. It’s time to take a good hard look at the poor management of FSIS, withdraw the flawed rule and restore the funding in the fiscal year 2014 FSIS budget to keep independent and trained FSIS inspectors on the job,” Hunter said.

The National Chicken Council also defended the proposal.

“This proposal is about making food safer — period,” said Ashley Peterson, NCC vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs. “In an effort to continue our progress towards reducing foodborne illnesses, we believe that the poultry inspection system should be modernized to transition to a model that is more science and risk-based, from one that was implemented in 1957.”

NCC noted that FSIS plans to present the updated analyses with the final rule “in a manner that will facilitate public understanding of the information used to support the rulemaking. “

Peterson also addressed the issue of increased line speeds and claims of their effects on worker safety and food safety.

“OSHA data speaks for itself: we have a sustained record of improving the safety of our workplace during the last two decades,” Peterson said. “Over the past 14 years of this pilot program there has been no evidence to substantiate the assertion that increased line speeds will increase injuries.”

“It is not in a poultry company’s best interests to operate at speeds that would harm its workers, and common sense tells you it is not in a company’s best interest to operate at speeds that cannot produce safe and high-quality poultry products,” she said.

Further, USDA already has plans to produce compliance guidelines that would streamline the training of poultry slaughter employees who conduct carcass and associated viscera sorting activities, Peterson said.

But she concluded, “One thing is certain — whether chicken plants operate under traditional inspection or choose to opt in to this voluntary, modernized inspection system, the end result is the same — rigorous food safety standards are applied to all chicken products and these products must meet or exceed these safety standards set forth by USDA in order to reach consumers.”