GAO: More analysis, transparency needed for poultry inspection regs

Further, the GAO found that the USDA has not disclosed enough information about the limitations of its study weighing the costs of the proposed regulations against their benefits. 

“As a result, stakeholders did not have complete and accurate information to inform their comments on the proposed rule and its potential impacts, the GAO wrote in a report issued Wednesday.

The USDA in January 2012 issued a proposed rule designed to modernize the poultry inspection system. The draft regulations would cut the number of on-site inspectors and shift much of the responsibility for detecting problems with chicken and turkey carcasses to plant employees.

The proposal would also allow plants to increase line speeds, allowing as many as 175 carcasses to pass by workers every minute.

The rule drew sharp criticism from food and worker safety groups, who argued that the changes would increase the risks to plant employees and public health.

The regulations are based on a trio of 15-year-old USDA pilot programs involving young chickens, turkeys and hogs.

However, 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 GAO found.

Analysis of the chicken plant program, for instance, involved “snapshots of data” instead of comprehensive figures reflecting the entire duration of the pilot, according to the GAO. The agency completed no evaluation or report looking at the turkey plant program administrated at five young turkey plants, citing a small sample size.

“Nevertheless, in publishing a proposed rule that includes an optional new poultry (chicken and turkey) inspection system, USDA stated that the new system was based on its experience with the pilot projects at young chicken and young turkey plants,” the GAO concluded.

The GAO recommended that the Agriculture Department begin analyzing the performance of the pilot program for hogs in advance of any additional proposed regulations involving changes in inspection at those plants.

The USDA should also “clearly disclose to the public limitations in the information it relied on for the proposed rule to modernize poultry slaughter inspections,” the GAO concluded. 

Safety advocates seized on the report as new evidence that USDA should put the brakes on the regulations.

"Our food safety system is being 'modernized' at the expense of worker safety and public health," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who had previoisly raised converns about the rule with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The proposed rule has long been a problem, with ten percent of chicken plants in a related program recently failing a round of Salmonella testing."

The Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) issued a similar call on the group's blog, suggesting the proposed rule is based on "junk data" and would not survive an expected legal challenge.

"If this rule goes forward based on such poor data, we’ll basically be playing high-speed Russian roulette on the food safety front, and throwing plant workers to the wolves," reads the blog post, penned by CPR president, Rena Steinzor and policy analyst Matt Shudtz. 

This story was updated with additional infromation at 4:58 p.m.