September 5, 2013
A federal poultry inspector could spend three days staring at a chicken and never see a foodborne pathogen.
So the idea that a modernized poultry inspection system that involves faster line speeds and fewer federal inspectors would somehow put the public in any more danger is absurd, says the country's top meat safety official.
Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), sat down for an exclusive interview with Politico on Wednesday morning in the wake of a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that suggests the department should provide more information on the impact of its plans to expand its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP)-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP).
Since 1998, the USDA has allowed a certain number of chicken, turkey and hog plants to operate outside of their normal set of rules, using faster line speeds and replacing some federal inspectors with plant employees. In early 2012, USDA proposed expanding the program, setting off a firestorm of reaction from consumer advocates and unions concerned about the safety of poultry workers.
But Hagen said the public is getting the wrong impression of the program.
"The proposed rule is bigger than [HIMP]," Hagen said in making the department's case for HIMP expansion. "And we know that these are things that are tough to get done and the industry understands that these things are important, and they see a lot of incentives in this rule, and I think that's why they're supporting some of these tougher consumer protections."
Besides speeding up production lines and replacing some government inspectors with plant employees, the proposal put forward by USDA also calls for poultry plants to develop, implement and maintain written procedures to prevent contamination of carcasses and parts by pathogens, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, and fecal material throughout the entire slaughter and dressing operation.
"This is about public health. Whether the pilot 15 years ago started out focused on public health or efficiency, what this proposal is about now is public safety," Hagen said.
"When we look at the data, it's pretty clear that consumer protections are increased and not decreased. It's completely the opposite of the story that some people are pushing."
GAO in its report says USDA has not provided enough data to address food safety-related concerns related to its proposed expansion of the inspection program.
The report, which was based on an audit that took place between September 2012 and August 2013, claims that the department's evaluation of food safety and quality performance standards was too limited because it used a snapshot of data rather than data collected from the pilot plants for the majority of the 15 years the program has been in place.
"Things like the GAO audit are actually really helpful," Hagen told Politico. "They look at things in a way that we don't necessarily have on the inside. So they point out things we may not have considered, or sometimes they show us the appearance of something that could be problematic.
"I think though that we disagree on what some of those limitations of data are."
As of July 2013, 29 plants—19 for slaughtering chicken, five for young turkeys and five for hogs—were participating in the USDA's pilot program, which began in 1998. Some of the poultry plants in the program have sped up the number of birds that go by from 140 per minute to as much as 175.
Consumer advocates are not convinced that the program will strengthen the food-safety inspection system, given the increased pace of the inspection process.
Several groups have questioned how thorough inspectors can be when production lines are sped up by up to 25%, and unions have expressed concern over loss of jobs and the increased speed poultry workers will have to deal with. The proposed ruling received 175,000 comments from different groups.
Comments submitted by a coalition of groups, including Food and Water Watch, Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias, and Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, say, "... the agency's assertion about food safety is questionable at best. This proposed rule would let the fox guard the hen house at the expense of worker safety and consumer protection."
But USDA claims its data show that fecal material, the primary avenue for pathogen contamination, appears about half as often in HIMP establishments, which are also checked four times more often for fecal material by inspectors. The average positive rate for Salmonella in HIMP plants is also 20% lower than the average positive rate.
"We absolutely, vehemently disagree that this would increase food-safety risks for anyone," Hagen said. "In fact, it would do the opposite. We would never put it forward if it weren't going to reduce illnesses. That would be inconsistent with everything that we've done in this term.
"An inspector could have three days per bird and he still couldn't see Salmonella," she said. "So the common sense reason that illnesses are reduced is that we have inspectors looking at things that they should be looking at instead of trying to see Salmonella or bruises."
Another roadblock the USDA is facing for expanding the HIMP program are concerns regarding worker safety.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, an Atlanta-based advocacy group, filed a 72-page petition Tuesday with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a mandatory standard regulating work speeds on production lines in meatpacking and poultry industries.
The group interviewed more than 300 poultry workers at poultry plants participating in pilot programs where line speeds were accelerated and found that 78% of the workers believed their jobs were made less safe.
But Hagen maintained that plants that implemented the pilot-program have dealt with the increase in speed by staffing up or automation, adding that inspectors who are not needed in plants will have the opportunity to move to other jobs.
"People have raised concerns about worker safety—sort of that gut feeling that things are going to be moving faster so are workers at risk. We don't have any data that shows that's the case.
"No one will be fired. An inspector who might now be employed on the line anymore has the opportunity to move to another job at [Food Safety Inspection Service]. The folks who are able to move in to these new jobs will actually be higher grades, which means better pay."
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