Administration ruffles feathers with push to speed poultry lines

The Obama administration is forging ahead with plans to overhaul the nation's poultry inspection program despite major concerns from Congress, public interest circles and government officials.

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President Obama’s 2015 budget, unveiled last week, contains millions of dollars worth of projected savings attributed directly to regulations that would remove some federal inspectors from poultry plants and allow the industry to speed up production lines.

Critics decry the proposal, which would shift some inspection duties to plant employees, as harmful deregulation. Dubbing the proposal the “filthy chicken rule,” they are imploring the administration to consider potential impacts to food and worker safety.

“This proposed rule would let the fox guard the hen house, at the expense of worker safety and consumer protection,” a coalition of more than 100 advocacy groups wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Obama.

Yet the administration is signaling it is moving forward with the regulations, which were drafted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

Rolling out the USDA’s budget request, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack touted a proposed $9 million funding cut for FSIS, almost $7.5 million of which stems from the poultry inspection modernization.

“So there's been an aggressive effort focused on this,” Vilsack told reporters. “The savings that's in this budget is a result of a proposal to modernize poultry inspection, which has not really changed much in the last 60 years. I think we know a lot more about where pathogens attach, what pathogens are most of concern, and how we might be able to improve the inspection process, while at the same time … saving money.”

The regulations would move the focus of federal resources away from “evisceration lines” at chicken and turkey slaughter plants in favor of more emphasis on off-line sampling for pathogenic microorganisms in poultry bound for commerce.

Currently, a federal inspector is required 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, requiring four federal inspectors.

Under the FSIS proposal, only one federal inspector would be required on the line — with other inspection responsibilities falling to plant employees — and speeds would be allowed to increase so that as many as 175 birds could fly by every minute.

Industry groups back the change. Tom Super, vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, said the focus away from on-line inspectors looking for “bumps and bruises and feathers” on poultry to “a more oversight role” is long overdue.

He emphasized that the shift doesn’t take inspectors away from the line altogether.

“An inspector with be on single line looking at every single bird,” he said, adding that the move is based on analysis of 15 years of scientific data.

“This isn’t something that was cooked up over night.”

The regulations, first proposed in draft form in 2012, are based on 15-year-old pilot programs at selected plants around the country.

But a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued last year concluded that that the USDA “has not thoroughly evaluated the performance of each of the pilot projects over time even though the agency stated it would do so when it announced the pilot projects.”

The report did not argue that FSIS should abandon the proposal altogether, but fueled criticism from opponents of the rule, who say it is ill conceived.

Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist at the group Food & Water Watch, said the shift toward more scientific analysis would do little to stave off illness outbreaks, since the agency lacks authority to block poultry from reaching the food supply — even if it tests positive for Salmonella or Campylobacter.

“They cannot be making the argument that this is going to reduce food borne illness when they don’t have the regulatory tools to do it,” Corbo said. “This thing is just totally flawed.”

Though the rule has been in development for years, the Agriculture Department has yet to forward final language to the White House for review. The budget’s release has spurred renewed criticism of the plan.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said the proposal would hurt workers forced to keep up with faster lines and fears food safety would suffer. She said the administration’s unwillingness to back off the proposal reflects an undue acquiescence to the interests of big business, and said she plans to contact Vilsack with her concerns.

“What’s happened here is really caving into industry pressure,” said DeLauro, who serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture. “This cannot go unchallenged.

The panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Sam Farr of California, said he shares some of DeLauro’s concerns but gave Vilsack a vote of confidence.

“What he’s trying to do is making agencies more efficient,” Farr said.