By Benjamin Goad - 11/15/13 12:48 PM EST
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is calling on the Agriculture Department to halt forthcoming meat and poultry inspection regulations that would cut federal personnel and shift inspection responsibilities to plant employees.
Announced last year by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the regulations are based on 15-year-old pilot programs at selected chicken, turkey and hog plants around the country.
Beyond reducing the number of inspectors, the rule would allow for plants to increase line speeds, allowing as many as 175 carcasses to pass by workers every minute.
Tester pointed to a report from the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General that raised questions about the pilot program at hog plants, noting that facilities involved with the program were ranked among the 10 worst, in terms of health and safety violations between 2008 and 2011.
“Given these violations at (the pilot program’s) swine facilities and the lack of thorough food safety evaluations, any attempt by USDA to expand this altered inspection approach is misguided and premature,” Tester said in a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The new rules would cover chicken and turkey plants, but could be extended to hog plants later.
In slashing the number of federal inspectors at the plants, the new regulations would shift more oversight responsibility to plant employees, prompting concerns from a coalition of public interest and watchdog groups.
“The administration’s proposal to replace some federal food inspectors with food company employees could threaten the safety of the poultry we serve to our families during the holidays and throughout the year, and has worrying implications for workers who are already doing one of the most dangerous jobs in America,” said Gynnie Robnett of the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards.
“Congress should investigate whether the Agriculture Department’s proposal is the right thing to do,” she said.
The USDA and FSIS have pushed back on the criticism.
“Groups claiming to be food safety focused are protesting modernization that would prevent at least 5,000 American illnesses every year,” spokeswoman Cathy Cochran told The Hill this fall.