Advocates demand look at ‘secret’ poultry rule

Public interest groups are demanding a look at the forthcoming poultry inspection regulations before they are enacted as federal policy.

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Food and worker safety advocates have relentlessly criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s initial proposal, which involved removing some federal inspectors from poultry plants and allowing the industry to speed up production lines, as dangerous deregulation of the industry.

Now, the groups say they want to know what’s in a revamped version of the rule — and get an opportunity to respond — before it is enshrined into the Federal Code of Regulations.

“The USDA needs to come clean about what changes it has since made to the rule, and give the public an opportunity to comment,” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. “Otherwise, the agency’s lack of transparency on this issue leaves us wondering what it is hiding.”

Draft regulations unveiled by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in 2012 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.

President Obama’s 2015 budget includes millions of dollars in projected savings as a result of the rule, but public interest groups say the proposal would hurt workers forced to keep up with faster lines and weaken protections against food-borne illness.

Groups including Food & Water Watch, the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention and Consumers Union pressed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to rescind the rule during a public comment period for the proposal.

Upon sending a revised rule to the White House this month for review, the agency said the rule was “significantly informed by the feedback” it received.

“Specifically, USDA received numerous comments raising worker safety as a potential side effect of the rule, and it has partnered with the federal agencies responsible for worker safety to address these concerns in the draft final rule,” the agency said.

Still, to the dismay of advocacy groups and congressional Democrats, the agency has, as a matter of policy, declined to detail the changes while the rule remains under review.

The decision has led to a new round of criticism from proponents of stronger regulations, who described the revisions as “secret changes” and are calling on the agency to allow a new, 120 public comment period for the revised rule.

While agencies commonly issue final rules without an additional comment period, critics say the major changes signaled by the government warrant public feedback.

Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch, pointed to a host of regulations drafted by the Food and Drug Administration in accordance with the Food Safety Modernization Act as precedent for greater public involvement in rulemaking.

In those cases, the agency held numerous public meetings and held multiple comment periods in support of new regulations, he noted.

Corbo said Food & Water Watch is among the public interest groups scheduled to meet with administrations officials next week at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to express concerns over the rule and its development.

But such meetings typically feature a one-way flow of information, with administration officials offering few clues about their thinking. Corbo said he believes the meetings are a mere formality, and that the rule is all but set in stone.

A contingent of Democratic lawmakers, led by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) and George Miller (Calif.), echoed those concerns in a letter sent Friday to OMB Director Shaun Donovan.

"Since the president's budget request for Fiscal Year 2015 cut funding for poultry line inspectors, we are concerned that the administration pre-determined the final rule with respect to the requirements for robust physical inspection of poultry by government inspectors," according to the letter, which was signed by more than two dozen other lawmakers.

The fight over the rule represents a role reversal of sorts, with public interest groups pushing to slow down a proposal favored by industry.

But the groups maintain they are not simply trying to delay the rule’s enactment.

“We’re legitimately concerned that the changes will not be sufficient,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. “For us, it’s a matter of us wanting to see what’s in the rule before USDA goes ahead and finalizes it.”