Last year, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) proposed a new regulation that would allow poultry processing plants to increase line speeds from 32 turkeys per minute to 55 turkeys per minute. Although the rule was designed to improve food safety by automating some aspects of the inspection process that are required to identify and dispose of contaminated poultry, consumer organizations feel that the proposed changes do not account for the expected adverse impacts that a faster line speed will have on worker health and safety. Many consumer advocates are also concerned the rule could worsen food safety and are calling for the rule to be withdrawn.
The new inspection program is known as HACCP-based Inspection Model Project, or HIMP. Ken Ward, a retired USDA meat and poultry inspector, believes this type of regulation would ultimately be harmful for consumers. “I worked 30 years as an inspector for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and I saw firsthand how badly the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project has worked in poultry plants,” says Ward during a recent telephonic press conference. “Expanding the pilot to all poultry plants will put consumers at risk by letting the companies self-regulate.”
In January 2012, USDA published the proposed rule to modernize poultry slaughter inspections based, in part, on its three pilot projects that began in 1998. Under the pilot projects, plant personnel sort carcasses before USDA’s inspection. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review these pilot projects and released its report in August 2013.
Although the report indicated more disclosure and data are needed to clarify the impact of proposed changes, the GAO report did not recommend that FSIS should delay publishing a final rule on the new poultry inspection system. The National Association of Federal Veterinarians (NAFV) agrees with the GAO findings, and urges FSIS to publish the final rule as soon as practicable.
In a press release, NAFV stated that “Our experience is that the new poultry inspection system results in safer meat. Under the new system, establishment employees sort good chicken carcasses from bad carcasses. This sorting is overseen by a federal veterinarian and their inspection team. After sorting, every passed carcass is inspected by a federal inspector. The carcasses are being checked twice. Traditionally inspected carcasses are only checked once,” says Dr. Douglas Fulnechek, a veterinarian and president of the NAFV.
According to Esmundo Juárez Carranza, a member of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center, who worked for a turkey plant in Arkansas for seven years and also participated in the recent telephonic press conference, “Current conditions in chicken and turkey plants make it impossible to work with dignity. If they increase the line speed even more, the workers won’t be able to do their jobs as well. There will be more contamination in the product and the companies will blame the workers.”