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Organic Consumers Association

USDA Ruffles Feathers With New Poultry Inspection Policy

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Cafo's vs. Free Range Page and our Food Safety Research Center Page.

The Obama administration is on the verge of dramatically scaling back the US Department of Agriculture's oversight of the nation's largest chicken and turkey slaughterhouses-while also allowing companies to speed up their kill lines.

Currently, each factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing kill lines churning out up to 140 birds every minute. Under the USDA's new plan, a single federal inspector would oversee lines killing as many as 175 birds per minute. That would mean there are three fewer inspectors for a production line running 25 percent faster. (The line rates at turkey slaughterhouses are, for obvious reasons, slower, but would also be sped up under the new rules).

After the idea was floated last year, it was met by massive pushback from food-safety and worker advocates, who argued that the combination of more speed and fewer inspectors would lead to dangerous conditions for both consumers and workers.

Since then, the proposal has been caught in the federal rulemaking process. But on April 10, the administration released a prospective USDA budget indicating that the agency plans to implement the new rules by September 2014. And in testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture on April 16, Vilsack said the rules would be finalized "very soon," declaring that the plan "will allow the poultry industry to continue to be profitable, and allow us [the USDA] to save some money as well."

Indeed, according to a 2012 statement, the department expects to save $90 million over three years by firing inspectors. Meanwhile, the USDA calculates that by increasing kill line speeds, the plan will save the poultry industry more than eight times as much, or $256.6 million each year. That  windfall would accrue mainly to four large companies-Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride (now mostly owned by JBS), Purdue, and Sanderson. Together, they slaughter nearly 60 percent of the chicken consumed in the US. (Another four companies, led by Butterball, slaughter 55 percent of turkeys.)

The USDA insists that the new system will improve poultry product safety. In his recent testimony, Vilsack said his department expects the new system will prevent "somewhere between three and five thousand foodborne illnesses" per year. Interestingly, Vilsack's numbers are less optimistic than other recent claims from department officials: Just a year ago, Alfred Almanza, administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), wrote that the plan would "help prevent an estimated 5,200" from getting sick.


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