Playing Chicken With Food Safety: Part II

Written by Kate Darlington on 19 April 2012.

Question: Will new poultry processing regulations endanger food safety?

Answer: It’s looking more and more that way

If you caught my post last week, you’ll remember that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has proposed a new rule regarding poultry processing that could impact the safety of your chicken. The New Poultry Inspection System, based on a small pilot called HIMP, will privatize some inspection duties, increase maximum slaughter line speed, and allow for “offline reprocessing antimicrobial agents” [read bleach and other approved chemicals] to sanitize carcasses.

According to the FSIS, implementing this new system will lead to more sanitary meat, decreasing rates of salmonella and other foodborne pathogens, and save money in the process —and their argument seems pretty strong if you can muddle your way through the technical terminology of theirofficial proposal.

However, the story isn’t ever that simple, now is it? According to Food & Water Watch, one of the proposal’s staunchest opponents, implementing HIMP-style inspection systems would be a food safety disaster.

After analyzing data from the pilot program, FWW showed that industry employees, tasked with thepoultry_inspectorjob of sorting and inspecting poultry after it is slaughtered, routinely miss defects and contamination. Ninety-percent of the “non-compliance records” handed out by USDA inspectors were for fecal contamination (that would be poop on your food, folks).

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), representing the concerns of USDA-employed poultry inspectors, has also come out against the proposed rule. AFGE’s main concern is that the new rule would eliminate almost 1,000 federal inspector positions. Billed as a taxpayer savings effort, the new rule would shift some of the sorting and inspecting responsibilities to processing plant employees.  In addition to this being a concern about jobs, the AFGE also questions what impact the privatization will have on public health.

Federal meat inspectors are required to have three years of experience, through training and/or education, to do their job. Under the new rule, industry-employed inspectors will have  to have none. While FSIS believes that training is vitally important, they will place no requirement that industry employees undergo specific training for sorting and inspecting processed poultry. Instead, they would give processing establishments “flexibility” in choosing their training method. FSIS maintains that processing establishments have incentive enough to train their employees well. Interesting thought…but what with the annual 1.2 million cases of food poisoning already a result of contaminated chicken, I’m not so sure I’d trust the industrial meat industry to self-regulate.

It’s all about the BPM (that’s Birds Per Minute, not Beats): Regardless of who actually employs the inspectors, one of the major contentions about the new poultry inspection rule has to do with how fast inspectors will be required to do their job. The new system would increase the maximum speed of the slaughter line to 165-200 bpm, requiring that inspectors examine about 3 birds per second. Yep, that’s fast. Too fast, some might say.

Oh, and since inspectors going at 3 birds per second probably won’t catch each case of fecal contamination or systemic disease, the new system allows for chemicals to be used on the meat to kill bacteria like salmonella and e.coli. Not a fan of ammonia-laced “pink slime”? Then, this should freak you out too.

Public comment is being taken on the FSIS proposal until April 26 (that’s one week from today!), so tell the USDA what you think about their poultry processing plans. You can click here to sign a petition urging the USDA to quash the rule before it goes into effect.

Dig Deeper:


Text of FSIS Proposal

Foodborne Illnesses in the United States- Center For Disease Control

Let Them Eat Chicken-blog devoted to opposition of this proposed rule



Privatized Meat Inspection Experiment Jeopardizes Food Safety - Food & Water Watch

AFGE Speaks Against Proposed Poultry Inspection System - AFGE Union Blog

New Government Proposal Threatens Food Safety - Nourishing the Planet

What’s Even Grosser Than Pink Slime?-Tom Philpott, Mother Jones

Photo Credit: USDAgov

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