Obama agencies clash over poultry rules

Two heavyweight departments in the Obama administration are squabbling over controversial changes to the nation's poultry inspection procedures.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been pushing new poultry inspection standards that would help industry boost production while subjecting it to less regulatory oversight, but critics say that move would come at the cost of worker and food safety.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has faced criticism everywhere from Congress to public interest groups for the proposal. But a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is also complaining about the rule in a rare dispute between major branches of the administration.

The HHS agency this week accused the USDA of "misleading" the public about its research at a poultry plant. The director of the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH) raised his objections in a letter to the USDA.

"I am writing to express a concern of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) about misinterpretations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture," NIOSH Director John Howard wrote.

The dispute stems from NIOSH's review of a poultry production plant in South Carolina, where the USDA is testing its new rules.

NIOSH issued what it saw as a generally negative report in March about the plant, but accused the USDA of taking the report out of context to support the agency's poultry inspection rule.

The USDA's rule would allow poultry plants to speed up the production lines, so that they can process as many as 175 birds each minute, compared to the current restriction of 140 per minute. At the same time, the USDA would reduce the number of government inspectors required to oversee the process.

The USDA argues this would modernize poultry inspects and prevent about 5,000 illnesses each year by lowering fecal contamination rates and positive Salmonella test results.

But critics fear the rule changes would lead to more workplace injuries and increased food contamination rates.

The NIOSH report found that 42 percent of the South Carolina plant workers had carpal tunnel syndrome, which it said was "alarming."

But the USDA pointed to the fact that NIOSH did not find an increase in the rate of carpal tunnel syndrome over a span of 10 months while the study was being conducted.

"NIOSH found that working conditions, injury rates, and the number of birds processed per employee did not change between the baseline and follow-up evaluations," the USDA wrote in a blog post. "It also made several recommendations to improve worker safety at this facility, but slowing the evisceration line speed was not among them."

NIOSH, however, said the USDA was misinterpreting the results and added that it was "quite surprised" by the agency's blog post.

"The truth of the matter is that the HHE Report draws no such conclusion," NIOSH responded.