Could USDA Proposal Threaten the Safety of American Consumers?
In 2011, Taylor Farms Pacific in California recalled 64,000 pounds of chicken and pork due to possible bacterial contamination. This recall is just one of many instances of food recalls in recent years, and yet despite the obvious problems with food safety, the USDA has now taken steps that may make poultry even less safe, explains a California personal injury lawyer.
Poultry plants in California and throughout the United States provide millions of chicken and turkey products to the country’s consumers. These poultry and chicken processing plants are regulated by both state and federal regulations that set rules for food safety inspections. The current poultry inspection system was devised in the 1950s and, while the USDA has been exploring modernization for decades, the inspection rules and requirements have remained largely unchanged until recently.
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched a pilot program in 20 poultry plants that involved using a different inspection method. The effects were studied to determine if the new inspection method was viable. Based on the results of this pilot program, the USDA has now proposed changes for all poultry plants.
The proposal involves reducing the number of inspectors in chicken plants and increasing the line speed at which the inspectors check the chickens. Currently, 140 carcasses are inspected per minute. The USDA wants to increase line speed and have 175 carcasses inspected each minute.
While increasing line speeds and the number of birds inspected, the USDA would reassign some agency inspectors to performing other testing procedures, including employing tests that are believed to be more effective at detecting salmonella and other bacterial contamination. A USDA inspector would remain in each poultry plant to look at each bird, and the USDA would retain its regulatory authority.
The USDA believes that the new inspection procedures and systems would improve consumer safety. Visual inspection is just one method of ensuring that food is safe and visual inspection would now be supplemented by additional testing to detect pathogens or bacteria. To provide support for this position, the USDA points to pilot programs showing that the safety records of plants using the new inspection criteria are equal to or exceed the safety records of using the traditional inspection method.
While the USDA points to its pilot program as evidence that the new inspection procedure can work, not everyone is convinced that making the change would benefit consumers.
Workers’ rights groups are opponents of the new change and have expressed concern that plant workers could suffer due to the increased line speeds and the increased demands for faster inspections. More workplace injuries, including repetitive stress injuries, could develop as workers are asked to do more and to work faster. While Bureau of Labor Statistics data and USDA information indicates that there is no added danger and that safety records are improving, it is unclear whether the past results from a limited number of poultry plants would translate to the same results in all plants.
The executive director of Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, indicated that the USDA’s proposed change was a danger to consumers because line workers would now be asked to do the job that more than 800 federal inspectors are currently doing, without sufficient training.
Food & Water Watch reported that they analyzed USDA safety records from 14 plants in the pilot program and found that defects were frequently missed. Some of the problems that the inspectors did not catch, for example, included defects in wholesomeness and bits of beak, lungs, oil glands, bile, feathers and feces left on the birds. In one plant, they indicated that the defect rates were as high as 99 percent.
With the increased speed of inspection, Food & Water Watch believes that spotting defects will be almost impossible for workers. Not only that, they express concern that companies will be permitted to use chlorine, hypobromous acid and tri-sodium phosphate to sterilize feces left on carcasses and to treat the poultry for salmonella. These chemicals are used to, among other things, clean swimming pools and cement.
Finally, Food and Water Watch warns that this new USDA change is simply a money-saving effort that compromises health and safety. Estimates indicate that the poultry industry could save as much as $260 million each year and Food & Water Watch believes that these savings are driving the recommendations rather than efforts to make food safer for everyone.
Unfortunately, if this is the case and tainted poultry is distributed to consumers, illnesses or even death could result. The chicken plants that release dangerous products could see their savings evaporate in lawsuits from consumers harmed by defective chicken products, and people could become sick due to a misguided effort to cut costs.
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