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USDA Poultry Plan Linked to Animal Welfare, Food Safety Threats

HIMP_rallyWhere there's risk of animal cruelty at slaughterhouses, food safety concerns are probably not that far behind, and vice versa!

USDA whistleblowers have revealed in the last two years the threats to public health caused by the agency's poultry processing inspection plan (which would increase line speeds to 175 birds per minute), but now poultry inspectors and other experts have also drawn links between the plan and an increased risk of inhumane handling. Another reason it needs the boot!

Yesterday's front-page Washington Post story reports that an annual average of 825,000 chickens die when they enter the scalder (a tank of boiling water used to help defeather them), rather than an automated blade swipe earlier on the slaughter line. This happens when birds are not properly shackled and stunned as they go down the already rapidly paced system. According to researchers, "the resulting death is far more painful for the birds than if they are properly incapacitated and their necks cut."

The USDA's plan to increase line speeds applies directly to the poultry processing lines after slaughter, but wouldn't more birds need to be slaughtered to meet the plan's goals? Would that 825,000 number of chickens dying by scalder increase if the plan was implemented? A worrisome thought.

Another concern is, of course, food safety. From the article:

Birds that have been boiled alive can be identified by the cherry-red color of their skin, which results because their bodies were not drained of blood during slaughter. Birds that died this way must be discarded, because their meat is saturated with blood and can breed bacteria or disguise the presence of disease.

This resulting bruised meat needs to be kept out of the food supply, but under the proposal, many government inspectors would be removed from the line and unable to flag birds that have suffered abuse and are not fit for human consumption. The inspectors would, instead, be replaced by poultry companies' own employees – workers who lack adequate whistleblower protections and cannot safely speak up when they witness a problem. This outsourcing of inspection is indeed "too hard to swallow."

If you haven't already, check out USDA whistleblower Phyllis McKelvey's petition urging the plan's immediate withdrawal. You can also read FIC's previous coverage on this flawed proposal.

 

Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.

 

USDA Inspectors Share Experiences During Government Shutdown

The government shutdown is hurting a lot of federal employees. There’s no questioning that. Government employees across the board are wondering what’s next. Questions about how bills will be paid if they can’t return to work soon. But not all federal employees have been forced out of their jobs. So-called “excepted” employees are hard at work. These employees, like USDA meat inspectors, are considered essential.

In the case of these inspectors, they perform the public health function of assuring that meat consumers eat is safe from contamination. In fact, 87 percent of USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service is at work. Still, on-the-job doesn’t mean all-is-good for the inspectors.

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Coalition Protests Flawed Poultry Inspection Plan at White House

HIMP_protest_092613Yesterday, FIC joined protesters from a coalition of food and worker safety groups outside the White House to oppose USDA’s plan to implement a dangerous new model for inspecting poultry.

The plan, which would give inspectors only 1/3 of a second to check each bird due to increased line speeds, has been criticized by many USDA inspectors, including some that have already witnessed the effects of the proposed changes at several pilot plants. Among anonymous whistleblowers' concerns are the following:

  • At pilot plants, federal inspectors are replaced with company plant workers who are powerless to speak out against their employers. The inspectors have witnessed that these sorters are "rebuked by supervisors" when they try to slow down processing lines for food safety concerns.
  • USDA inspectors are discouraged from holding pilot plants accountable, with reports of a supervisor telling inspectors to “give them a break” in order to prevent plants with high numbers of violations from being removed from the pilot program.
  • Under traditional inspection methods, inspectors can see all sides (and the inside) of the bird. But inspectors at pilot plants can only see the backside of the bird – not the front (where the breast meat is), which may clearly show tumors or scabs. Nor can inspectors see the inside of the bird, where fecal matter and other disease-causing abnormalities are found.
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New Food Safety Bill Empowers Meat Industry Workers to Protect Food Supply

The Government Accountability Project (GAP) welcomes the comprehensive whistleblower protections included in the Safe Meat and Poultry Act of 2013, introduced today by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). The bill provides gold standard whistleblower protections for corporate meat and poultry workers who report food violations enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In spite of recent attempts to gag whistleblowers, this groundbreaking legislation allows historically marginalized meat and poultry workers to safely speak up on behalf of consumers.

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USDA Whistleblowers: Workers "Threatened" for Making Food Safety Complaints at Pork Plants

usdaLast week it was poultry; this week it's pork. The front page of today's Washington Post has published yet another incriminating piece on the USDA's pilot inspection program. We've already heard serious whistleblower concerns about the program at numerous poultry plants, but now insiders involved at pork processing facilities have come forward with their concerns.

Mirroring several of the concerns many USDA whistleblowers brought to FIC regarding the poultry program (including pressure to keep quiet when they see food safety problems), six anonymous USDA inspectors have raised concerns from hog pilot plants.

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Worker Safety Concerns Ignored in Poultry Industry Awards

poultry_lineThere seems to be some contradictory messaging between poultry industry owners and workers when it comes to employee health and safety. On one hand, top producers are getting patted on the back for "outstanding safety performance." On the other, workers and inspectors report impossibly fast line speeds and unsafe conditions they fear will worsen under a new poultry processing plan.

Last week, the Joint Industry Safety and Health Council recognized 92 U.S. poultry facilities for worker safety performance, including Butterball, Cargill, Perdue and Wayne Farms. The top honor, the Award of Distinction, was given to several of their poultry processing facilities, including a Cargill plant in Texas that is participating in a controversial pilot program that may, in fact, enhance worker safety concerns. The program

  1. increases already unmanageable line speeds,
  2. removes government inspectors, and
  3. transfers those government duties to plant workers, who lack adequate whistleblower protections and feel obligated to keep quiet when they experience problems

These are just some of the numerous issues whistleblowers have raised about the program's changes. Two other plants participating in the problematic inspection program, a Butterball processing plant in North Carolina and a Pilgrim's Pride plant in Texas, each received an Award of Honor for their worker safety.

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Ag Gag Sponsors Should Follow Minnesota and Stop Proposing Anti-Whistleblower Legislation

MinnesotaMinnesota was one of four states to start the Ag Gag trend in 2011 when it (along with Iowa, Florida, and New York) introduced a problematic bill that would criminalize industrial agriculture whistleblowers that document abuse without permission. The Minnesota bill did not make it out alive, and another attempt by the state to pass the legislation failed in 2012. But this year … no signs of Ag Gag in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes."

A recent panel at the state's Farmfest reinforced this departure from Ag Gag when several livestock industry representatives "distanced themselves from the legislation." Panelists included spokesmen from:

  • National Pork Producers Council (NPPC)
  • Minnesota State Cattleman's Association
  • Minnesota Turkey Growers Association
  • Minnesota Milk Producers Association

NPPC apparently got the hint that Ag Gag was rejected by the masses when it conducted a study of the issue's media coverage and found that "99 percent of the stories about it were negative," according to the Twin Cities Daily Planet. The other panelists agreed that there were better strategies of addressing animal welfare concerns than passing Ag Gag laws, clearly not wanting to be associated with the unpopular measure.

While Minnesota has jumped off the Ag Gag radar screen, 11 other states lined up to push their version of it in 2013. Fortunately, all 11 bills failed to pass, but we could see them crop up once again in 2014. These other states that continue to consider Ag Gag each session should take a hint and realize that the public doesn't want to be kept in the dark. It's time to drop the attempt to shut whistleblowers up and instead empower them to help stop wrongdoing in its tracks.

 

Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.

 
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