Citing worker safety and food safety concerns, a mix of health, labor and consumer groups is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withdraw a proposal to scale back the physical inspection of poultry.
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 23 groups and 16 individuals on Thursday lodged a number of criticisms of the USDA’s HACCP Inspection (HIMP) model, which has been utilized in 25 chicken and poultry plants since 1998 in a pilot program.
HIMP reduces the number of Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors on duty and largely turns over physical examination for defects and disease to company employees, while allowing plants to speed up their lines to 175 birds per minute (bpm), over the current 140 bpm limit.
FSIS says expanding HIMP would modernize an outdated inspection system, save taxpayers around $90 million over three years, and prevent 5,200 foodborne illnesses, mostly from Salmonella, annually.
In their letter — whose signatories included AFL-CIO, Consumer Federation of America, Food & Water Watch and STOP Foodborne Illness — the advocates contend that the proposal could actually be bad for food safety, in part because there is no requirement to test for Salmonella or Campylobacter, the two most common foodborne pathogens associated with poultry products. The proposal allows plants to determine their own testing plans and decide how much training they want to give to company inspectors.
“While the poultry slaughter inspection program does need to be improved, the proposed rule will not yield the benefits proponents claim…it will not result in substantial improvements in the rates of foodborne illness,” reads the letter.
FSIS argues that by transitioning inspectors away from quality control tasks, they can spend more time focusing on food safety tasks.
The letter also takes issue with the potential negative impact the increased line speed could have on workers, pointing out that FSIS did not work with the the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on the proposal. FSIS has called for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to study the impact of the rule on worker safety, but the letter complains that the review would only include one plant and a few years to complete. They argue a safety review should happen before FSIS puts HIMP into place.
“Production line speed already contributes to unacceptably high levels of injuries in the poultry processing industry,” according to the advocates, who cite a study by Wake Forest University which found that 59 percent of workers at a traditional poultry plant, which operates at 70 to 91 bpm, had definitely or possible carpal tunnel syndrome from the stress of repeated motions on the job.
“It is likely that increased line speeds of up to 175 birds per minute as permitted under the proposal would increase the percentage of workers with CTS and other repetitive motion injuries,” adds the letter.
The chicken and turkey industries have been very supportive of HIMP, which USDA estimates could save the industry $250 million annually by allowing increased output. In comments filed in support of the proposal, the National Chicken Council called HIMP a “successful pilot program” and said the industry could safely handle faster line speeds: “We are confident the increased line speeds allowed under the proposed rule have been demonstrated over several years to be safe for workers in the broiler chicken industry.”
The National Turkey Federation also strongly supported HIMP in its comments, calling the program “the logical next step in modernization of the nation’s food safety system.”© Food Safety News