Squabble over new poultry inspection rules intensifies

A man in a chicken suit covered with labels reading “feces,” “pus” and “salmonella” stood surrounded by opponents of the proposal, who unfurled a petition signed by half a million people against the changes and draped it across Pennsylvania Avenue.

The spectacle was meant to illustrate concerns held by critics of the U.S. Agriculture Department regulation that would cut federal personnel and shift inspection responsibilities to plant employees.

Unveiled 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.

In addition to 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. 

Food and worker safety groups warn that the new procedures would threaten worker safety and public health.

They contend that their case is buoyed by of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued earlier this month. The report concluded 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 evidence is constantly mounting that this rule is flawed," said Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch.

The petition displayed in front of the White House Thursday urges the administration to withdraw the rule.

But the USDA and FSIS have pushed back forcefully on the criticism, arguing in favor of the modernized system.

They did so again Thursday, disputing the allegations as false. 

“Groups claiming to be food safety focused are protesting modernization that would prevent at least 5,000 American illnesses every year,” FSIS spokeswoman Cathy Cochran said. “These food safety enhancements dramatically lower fecal contamination rates and positive Salmonella test results in poultry plants, not to mention that they would put in place stricter requirements for quality defects, such as bruises.”