by Scott Canon
Could fewer slaughterhouse inspectors make for a safer chicken cutlet?
Federal officials see a way to modernize poultry plant inspections while reducing the number of government workers needed to look out for potential contamination.
They say the changes would overhaul regulations that have been in place since the Eisenhower administration. They contend the switch might prevent more than 5,000 food-borne illnesses a year. The federal government could trim its labor costs by $90 million a year. The poultry industry could save $250 million-plus annually.
Critics say the plan is a turkey.
How, they wonder, can ramping up the number of birds an inspector eyeballs every minute from about 35 to north of 75, or 175 if the new methods speed things up enough, make a thigh or drumstick safer? And how could shifting the bird-processing line so that inspectors don’t see the insides or the breasts of chickens make their look-sees more thorough?
The dispute is another example of how converting livestock to soup stock is not appetizing work. There’s a reason that part of food preparation doesn’t show up in a McDonald’s commercial or supermarket circulars. And it’s bound to draw controversy.
“There are a lot of gross things that happen with poultry. … But this is a food safety issue, not just an ick factor issue,” said Amanda Hitt, the director of the food integrity program at the Government Accountability Project.
Her organization is an advocacy group for government whistleblowers. It’s come forward with what it says are affidavits from USDA inspectors convinced a switch to a streamlined processing line won’t just jeopardize their jobs, but could bring more bacteria into your kitchen.
The industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reject the criticisms. The proposed changes focus on slaughtering birds differently, they say, not more carelessly.
Critically, the change shifts responsibility from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service staff to slaughterhouse employees. Critics see that as a recipe for putting profits ahead of food safety because companies have built-in incentives to move poultry through the slaughter as quickly as possible.
Supporters of the changes say the job being shifted to industry is about cosmetics of the meat — feathers, bruises, benign scabs — and not about its likelihood that a carcass will harbor disease.
“Right now, we focus on visual inspections of birds, carcass by carcass, and we look for bumps and blemishes. Do these blemishes put Americans’ health at risk? No,” Alfred Almanza, administrator of the inspection service, wrote in a blog post earlier this month. “Now that our scientific knowledge has advanced and helped us better identify true food safety threats, we cannot do the same thing we’ve been doing since the 1950s.”
The USDA points to a study it released last summer that looked at pilot programs in place for about two dozen plants for more than a decade, including a processor in Southwest City, Mo. The agency concluded that expanding those rules and methods to all American poultry processors would actually reduce the number of carcasses that go to market with traces of deadly bacteria.
A public comment period ends this week on whether all the country’s poultry plants should shift to the new standard.
USDA officials see it as a modernization that relies less on the keen eyes of inspectors and more on a holistic understanding of the slaughter floor and where contamination is most likely to soil a carcass with germs that could land a consumer in the emergency room.
The new alternative does require an inspector to scan many more carcasses. But it comes with a big change. The inspector is stationed at the point before a carcass is sent to a chilling room for a dunk in chlorine or other sanitizer. If the inspector finds a defective bird under the rules currently in place for conventional processing, that single bird is removed from the line — either to be discarded or reprocessed.
Under the newer system, that inspector stops the entire processing line. Work would only crank up again when it became clear why company quality checks had missed the problem, and the plant fixed it.
“You stop the line, and all of a sudden they’re not making money,” said Stan Stromberg, the president of the National Association of State Meat and Food Inspection Directors and a food safety official in Oklahoma. “So there’s a real incentive to sort these things out before it gets to that inspector.”
The USDA’s study insists the new standards represent a “stringent metric” being met in the processing plants where they’ve been tested.
“Fecal contamination rates and salmonella positive rates are lower,” the report said.
The study concedes that the new way for checking processed chicken and turkey requires inspectors to eyeball far more birds, but it says years of trials show those inspectors are “performing in a manner that enables them to properly inspect each carcass and, therefore, make the appraisals sufficient to identify adulterated carcasses.”
Poultry processors, the USDA says, will have incentives to screen out meat blemished with tumors, scabs and bruises. Customers will shy away from meat that looks nasty.
The industry has some minor concerns, but largely supports the changes. They will reduce “reliance on old-fashioned visual and sensory inspection and moving to prevention-oriented inspection systems based on actual risk to consumers,” the National Chicken Council’s vice president of science and technology, Ashley Peterson, said in an email.
Some consumer groups attack the USDA report. They say it uses statistics from larger, more modern plants used in the pilot program and compares it to the hodgepodge of 176 other plants that would switch to the new system.
The Obama administration could have gone to Congress to ask for stronger powers to force poultry processors to reduce the amount of salmonella and campylobacter, said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch. Instead, it chose to expand the overhaul of inspections to all U.S. plants.
A Freedom of Information Act request for records from plants in the pilot program found company employees regularly missed problems with processing, most commonly not removing all the organs or leaving the carcasses with fecal contamination. Because the newer methods allow birds to move more quickly on the disassembly line, Food and Water Watch concluded, it left inspectors to essentially take samples rather than examine every bird headed to market.
“It turns the keys of food safety over to the companies,” Corbo said.
The American Federation of Government Employees represents 6,500 plant inspectors. Stan Painter is both head of that division of the union and a meat inspector at one of the pilot plants. He said that the rate at which inspectors must check chickens makes it too easy for tainted poultry to slip through.
“It’s not humanly possible to look inside 90 chickens in a minute,” he said. “You just can’t do it.”
That, he said, puts the burden on employees he says are discouraged from removing birds from the processing line.
“It’s just hard to regulate yourself,” the union official said.
The USDA estimates 800 to 900 jobs would be eliminated. Painter said he thinks it will be closer to 1,500 jobs.
Corbo, the Food and Water Watch lobbyist, said the changes will effectively force consumers to guard themselves.
“The USDA,” he said, “is putting the onus on the consumer to cook it properly to catch the things it misses.”