“Modernization” of poultry slaughter under fire

Now that the election is over, advocates in Washington, DC and the Obama administration can refocus their energy on pressing policy issues. One of the biggest issues facing the food safety community right now is the modernization of the food system. New rules meant to modernize poultry inspection has advocates from many areas concerned — is 1/3rd of a second enough to properly inspect a chicken? We don’t think so.

With the two-year anniversary of the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) approaching, this topic is foremost in the minds of many food safety advocates. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has regulatory jurisdiction over meat and poultry, is also focusing on modernization. To this end, they have issued the proposed rule, “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection.” NCL has joined a diverse group of labor, food safety and good government groups in opposing this rule.

What does the rule do?

Since the passage of the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has been responsible for carcass by carcass inspection in slaughter plants throughout the country. These inspectors are trained and, because they are employed by the government and not the plant, are assured job security regardless of whether they uncover issues at a plant. Under the proposed rule, many inspection duties would be reassigned to plant employees.

What worker safety concerns does this proposed rule present?

  • Aside from shifting inspection duties from government inspectors to plant employees, this proposed rule also allows for increases in line speed. While several inspectors currently man the slaughter line, the proposed rule will decrease their presence. The result is that while under traditional inspection each inspection looks at about 30 birds per minute, under the proposed rule each inspection would look at about 175 birds per minute. This means that he or she spends 1/3 of a second on each bird.
  • Under the new system, inspectors are also unable to look at the whole bird. This is a problem because fecal contamination, which often indicates the presence of foodborne illness, can often occur inside the bird as well as outside it.
  • While USDA claims that this proposal will decrease the prevalence of foodborne illness, in their own data analysis, they admit that the proposal’s impact on campylobacter, which is responsible for close to a million illnesses each year, is “ambiguous.”
  • Under the new system, plants will be allowed to create their own standards for testing of foodborne illnesses and other defects, such as scabs, feathers and bile. This means that checking how plants are doing in implementing this rule will become quite a challenge.

What food safety concerns does this proposed rule present?

  • While FSIS inspectors receive uniform training, the proposed rule does not mandate any specific training requirements for plant employees who would take over inspection duties. This is a concern both for food safety and for the workers themselves who may likely not be adequately prepared for their new responsibilities.
  • Even at much slower line speeds, the poultry slaughter industry is notorious for high rates of repetitive motion injuries. Advocates are concerned that increases in line speeds will only increase the rate of injury. Despite these widely raised concerns, the proposal has been advanced without the benefit of any comprehensive study of the impact of line speeds on worker injury.
  • Because many of those employed in the poultry industry are new immigrants or women, and because only around 30% of the industry is organized, these workers are particularly vulnerable. Will these workers, who depend on the plant for their job, be willing to speak up when they spot food safety problems?

Because of these concerns, NCL has joined with other leading groups to urge USDA to withdraw the rule until it can address the many concerns raised about both food and worker safety. If you eat chicken, or if you feed it to your children, you should be concerned about this rule too.