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Advocates Ask USDA to Halt Poultry Inspection Plan

Plan jeopardizes worker, food safety, groups say

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FSIS says expanding HIMP would modernize an outdated inspection system, save taxpayers around $90 million over three years, and prevent 5,200 foodborne illnesses, mostly from Salmonella, annually.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
  • ME

    Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA § 381.1
    Subpart A—Definitions
    § 381.1 Definitions.
    Inspection. ‘‘Inspection’’ means any
    inspection required by the regulations
    to determine whether any poultry or
    poultry products comply with the requirements
    of the Act and the regulations.
    Inspection Service. ‘‘Inspection Service’’
    means the organizational unit
    within the Department having the responsibility
    for carrying out the provisions
    of the Act.
    Inspection Service employee. This term
    refers to any employee of the Inspection
    Service who is authorized to perform
    any function under the regulations.
    Inspector. ‘‘Inspector’’ means (a) an
    employee or official of the U.S. Government
    authorized by the Administrator
    to inspect poultry and poultry
    products under the authority of this
    Act, or (b) any employee or official of
    the government of any State or Territory
    or the District of Columbia authorized
    by the Administrator to inspect
    poultry and poultry products
    under the authority of this Act, under
    an agreement entered into between the
    Administrator and the appropriate
    State or other agency.
    Subpart K—Post Mortem Inspection;
    Disposition of Carcasses
    and Parts
    § 381.76 Post-mortem inspection, when
    required; extent; traditional,
    Streamlined Inspection System
    (SIS), New Line Speed (NELS) Inspection
    System and the New Turkey
    Inspection (NTI) System; rate of
    inspection.
    (a) A post-mortem inspection shall be
    made on a bird-by-bird basis on all
    poultry eviscerated in an official establishment.
    No viscera or any part thereof
    shall be removed from any poultry
    processed in any official establishment,
    except at the time of post-mortem inspection,
    unless their identify with the
    rest of the carcass is maintained in a
    manner satisfactory to the inspector
    until such inspection is made. Each
    carcass to be eviscerated shall be
    opened so as to expose the organs and
    the body cavity for proper examination
    by the inspector.
    § 381.84 Airsacculitis.
    Carcasses of poultry with evidence of
    extensive involvement of the air sacs
    with airsacculitis or those showing
    airsacculitis along with systemic
    changes shall be condemned. Less affected
    carcasses may be passed for food
    after complete removal and condemnation
    of all affected tissues including
    the exudate.
    Somebody doesn’t know the new line changes.

  • http://sensiblesafeguards.org/index Coalition for Sensible Safeguards

    Thanks for writing this article! You can find much more about this dangerous rule, as well as some fun graphics, at our Poultry Rule Information Center: http://sensiblesafeguards.org/poultry-rule-information-center

  • doc raymolnd

    Currently up to 145 birds per minute to be “inspected” by an FSIS employee–or less than 0.5 seconds per bird. And what they remove from the line, for the most part, are carcasses with obvious quality defects, like broken limbs. Let industry pay for quality control and use FSIS’s budgeted dollars for pathogen control. HIMP’s pilot projects are nearly 20 years old and have proven their worth. The current system began when Dwight D Eisenhower signed the PPIA into law.

  • husna aijaz

    From my analysis of this article, two things can be a concern here:
    Employee Safety and inadequate(0.5 seconds)time for a post-mortom inspection of poultry intended for human consumption (HACCP violation- hazards cannot be evaluated in that time frame).
    Argument:
    Employee injury can result in work loss and increased health care costs.
    Secondly, due to inadequate time spend in evaluating the birds Campylobacter and Salmonella cases will be on the rise due to additional concern. Oops…increased health care costs incurred once again due a rise in food borne illness!
    (Additional concern: We also need to remember inadequate pre-mortom environment faced by the birds including, but not limited to, feed deprivation, that contributes to increased colonization of the bird’s gut with the bacteria of concern)
    Possible Solution:
    A pilot implementation of the new model (HIMP) would be the ideal way to proceed, before a full scale implementation of the program.The benefits versus the drawbacks need to be carefully evaluated in relation to cost of implementation, safety (food and employee) and cost of health care incurred as a result of the “next step” in modernization.

  • Food Inspector

    I have worked with FSIS as a Food Inspector for 14 years. On an average day, at 35 birds a minute, it is typical to see airsacculitis (abdominal, thoracic, & Interclavicular), Inflammatory Process, salpingitis, pericarditis, peritonitis, hepatitis, ascitis, toxic liver, synovitis, contaminated or bruised birds, skin tumors, septic birds, DOAs, cadavers, rotted birds, granuloma, etc. Not typically seen often is Leukosis or aspergillosis. I have never seen Tuberculosis. The reality is that many inspectors have taken their jobs for granted, sleeping or playing on the line. Fighting amongst the inspectors are common, as well as fighting with plant personnel. A major problem is fraternization of FSIS personnel (Food Inspectors, CSIs, or SVMOs) with plant personnel. This leads to a conflict of intrest in that FSIS personnel often look the other way when the plant is not following regulations. You also see Food Inspectors laying out of work often for ridiculus reasons. This often leads to the CSI taking the place of the inspector on the line and tasks on the floor not being performed. Do I believe the New Inspection System will solve these problems? No. The only result will be more time on the floor for sleeping, playing, and fraternization. We will look good in PHIS, but once the chickens are cut-up and packaged you will not know if they were rotted, had a toxic liver (toxic bird), DOA, etc… Although, such occupational diseases as carpal tunnel amongst Food Inspectors should improve.

  • Minkpuppy

    Food Inspector: I hope you’re trying to move up and out of there. I know how hard it is to watch that crap go on and nothing being done about it. I had to promote out of the place I was in before I snapped.
    Bottom line for me: It really doesn’t matter who’s at the end of that line if they’re not taking the job seriously and aren’t held responsible if they don’t do the job. I don’t give a rat’s patootie if it’s a USDA inspector or company if they’re not being held responsible for what gets past them and into the chiller.
    USDA IIC’s need to grow a backbone and write up the inspectors that aren’t performing and misbehaving. I’ve heard every excuse for not writing inspectors up from “I don’t want to bother with the paperwork” to “We can’t afford to lose them, we’re already short-handed, at least he/she is a warm body on the line”.
    Regardless of what the company’s corporate policy may be, down in the plants it’s a different story. The supervisors are under pressure to make numbers at any cost and a lot will sacrifice food safety to cut corners, including pressuring their inspectors to let things go. What chicken plant employee is going to stand up to their boss when their job may be on the line and they need to feed their family? Those supervisors have to be reigned in and held accountable as well.
    I agree with Doc Raymond that there should be more focus on pathogen issues BUT unless the inspector (company or FSIS) gets enough time to see the whole bird including the viscera, they can’t possibly catch all the pathology or cosmetic defects. The condemnation numbers don’t reflect how many birds are pulled off for salvage. There’s a lot of non-systemic stuff flying under the radar because we don’t track it. 0.5 seconds is even more ridiculous than the 1.5 seconds under streamlined inspection.
    Increasing the fecal checks to one per hour is a good idea but 80 birds per line/per 8-hour shift is still not a significant number of birds being checked when a total of 250,000 or more are being pushed through in a day. A lot is still going to get by and into the chiller.
    It’s a good idea in theory but the reality is much different in the plants.