PhotoThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there has been no significant progress since 1999 in reducing illness from Salmonella -- the leading cause of death and hospitalization due to food poisoning -- and Campylobacter.

Chicken is one of the foods most often contaminated with Salmonella, so why would anyone suggest speeding up the slaughtering process while cutting back on the number of federal inspectors?

Good question, and one a coalition of 23 groups and 16 individuals says has not been satisfactorily answered. They today urged the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to withdraw its proposal that increases poultry processing line speeds and removes hundreds of federal inspectors from poultry processing plants.

The proposal, which would modify USDA’s poultry slaughter inspection program, increases the poultry line speed to an unsafe level and allows plant employees to replace federal government inspectors for certain inspection activities, the groups charged.

Specifically, the coalition is alarmed by the proposed increase in poultry slaughter line speeds to 175 birds per minute, a five-fold increase over current speeds. At such rates, government inspectors would have only one-third of a second to examine each chicken carcass for food safety risks and other problems. Further, increased line speeds would contribute to higher rates of carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion injuries among poultry plant workers.

The proposal also reduces the numbers of federal inspectors working at poultry plants.

Improvement needed

PhotoThe coalition said it doesn't deny that the poultry inspection program needs improving but said the proposal was developed with limited public input. USDA did not consult with its inspection advisory committee prior to issuing its proposal; nor were public meetings held to solicit the views of the public before the proposal was announced. 

In addition, the groups highlighted a number of critical food safety and worker safety concerns raised by the proposal.

The coalition is also concerned that the proposal would change the standards for accepting or rejecting birds. There is no provision in the new rule mandating training of plant employees, who would be assigned tasks previously conducted by federal government inspectors. USDA whistleblowers have commented that plant workers with insufficient training often overlook things.  

Moreover, employers might pressure plant employees to let as many birds pass as possible. As a result, there would likely be an increase in the rate of “defects” such as bruises, scabs, bile and ingesta on the carcasses.

The coalition includes the Consumer Federation of America, Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention.

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