USDA overhauls poultry inspection rules

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday unveiled regulations designed to overhaul the nation’s poultry inspection system, saying a shift toward more scientific testing would prevent thousands of cases of foodborne illness a year. 

The closely watched rule has been maligned by food and worker safety groups, who see provisions allowing for fewer inspectors on “evisceration lines” at chicken and turkey slaughter plants as industry deregulation. Yet the agency dropped a provision in its draft proposal that would have allowed plants to speed up their production lines.

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Vilsack said the final rule must be “judged on its own merits.” 

“We believe at the end of the day it will result in a safer product,” he told reporters. 

Still public interest groups, who had called upon the agency to make the changes available for comment before a final rule was issued, were skeptical. 

Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, called the rule a travesty and said the Obama administration was “turning its back on workers” and leaving consumers “at the mercy of Big Chicken.” 

“The new inspection system will allow plants to operate their slaughtering and evisceration lines at speeds that have proven hazardous for workers,” Steinzor said. “It will pull federal inspectors off the processing line, ensuring that carcasses caked in blood, guts and feathers whir by at the rate of 2.3 birds per second.” 

Under the rule, plants would have the option of removing inspectors from the front of inspection lines, but require inspectors to remain on the end of the lines. Vilsack said the shift represented evolution from a system, dating back to 1957, that was based more on quality assurance than food safety. 

Inspectors at the front of evisceration lines traditionally look for bruises and other visible defects that may not actually be evidence of a food safety concern. 

A mandatory requirement of more sampling and testing for salmonella or campylobacter twice per shift is a more effective strategy in preventing outbreaks, Vilsack said, noting that the bacteria is “not something that can be seen with the naked eye.” 

Existing regulations require a federal inspector for every 35 birds that cross the slaughter line each minute. The total number of birds allowed to pass through is capped at 140 per minute. 

The initial USDA proposal would have allowed speeds to increase so that as many as 175 birds could fly by every minute. That provision was scrapped and the current number remains as a firm ceiling, 

“The current rule and regulation is up to 140 birds,” Vilsack said. “There are no triggers, no tricks, no hidden ways folks can get around this.”  

The regulation, developed with help from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, also requires plants to attest to keeping logs related to worker safety issues.

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