What the Cluck?! Feds Relax Oversight of Industrial Poultry

Experts call inspection cuts a ‘step backward' for food and worker safety.

poultry processing
A USDA inspector at a poultry processing facility in Accomac, Va., checking for cleanliness and testing poultry for illnesses. The department is proposing cuts that would reduce inspectors and speed up kill lines. (Photo: USDA / Flickr)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Here’s some agriculture news that’s bound to ruffle more than a few feathers: The United States Department of Agriculture is set to dramatically reduce its oversight of the nation’s largest poultry slaughterhouses—and will allow companies to speed up their kill lines. Currently, four inspectors oversee each kill line, which turns out 140 birds per minute. Under the new rules, due to take effect by September 2014, just one inspector would oversee kill lines running 25 percent faster—slaughtering 175 birds per minute.

Understandably, the idea, which USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says is designed to keep the poultry industry profitable and save the government money, received stiff opposition from food safety and labor advocacy groups when it was floated last year. And with the cuts now officially on paper in a prospective USDA budget, released April 10, food safety organizations are fighting back, insisting the margin of error increases significantly when you speed up dangerous processes while simultaneously reducing government oversight.

“By unleashing higher line speeds, it furthers the industrialization of the food supply,” says Elisabeth Holmes, staff attorney with the Center for Food Safety, who adds that, inevitably, workers will allow unhealthy birds to enter the food chain. “It allows corporations—who are responsible to shareholders, not to the public—to determine the quality of food that is provided to the American public.”

Ominously, the announcement of the change came around the same time that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from eating contaminated food—a number that hasn’t been lowered in decades. And tests have shown that anywhere from a quarter to two-thirds of supermarket chickens contain the pathogens salmonella or campylobacter—or both.

A 2012 USDA report estimated that the department could save $90 million over three years by reducing the number of poultry inspectors. Furthermore, Vilsack claims the new policies could prevent “somewhere between three and five thousand food borne illnesses” per year by changing the way birds are inspected. Instead of relying on visual evidence of illness and contamination (feces, bruises, blemishes, blood, etc.), the department will now douse all the birds in water laced with chlorine and other antimicrobial chemicals in attempt to kill all harmful pathogens on the spot. Experts say this inspection method itself presents safety concerns.

“There are alternative methods available for sanitizing poultry at this stage that do not involve chemicals, or increasing a bird’s meat weight by absorption of a chemical brine,” Holmes tells Takepart. “Air chilling is one example of an alternative method.”

But chilling takes time, and the industrialized food system relies on speed to keep price points low and inventories high. Currently, four companies—Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Purdue and Sanderson—account for almost 60 percent of the chickens slaughtered in the United States. Another four companies account for more than half of the turkeys processed.

Food & Water Watch has also come out strongly against the changes in poultry processing regulations, as have worker-safety groups. Holmes says the new policy compromises the safety of hundreds of thousands of poultry workers because there will be a dramatic increase in line speed, and little change in training. Overall, it’s not the direction the American food system ought to be moving, she says.

“This is a step backward, certainly.”

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