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Can We Talk Turkey?

Opinion

On April 24, 2013, Mother Jones ran a story entitled “USDA Ruffles Feathers With New Poultry Inspection Policy,” by Tom Philpott.

Like so many posts that I read about on the new proposed poultry inspection system, it is loaded with innuendos, inflammatory comments and is often just plain wrong.

But to lay the ground work for this OpEd, let’s talk about the modernization of the poultry inspection system for a few paragraphs.

First of all, the Poultry Products Inspection System was signed into law in 1957 by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower. I was a 10-year-old boy living in Loup City, Nebraska at the time.

A lot has changed since then, but not the way the USDA inspects poultry.

One of the less obvious things that has changed is the condition of the birds we eat. Back then the intent of the law was to have federal inspectors in poultry slaughter plants looking at carcasses for things that might harm our health, like tumors, abcesses and signs of sepsis.

The birds 56 years later are much healthier and are much younger as a result of animal husbandry advances and genetics. Most of today’s broilers go to harvest between 35 and 42 days of age.

Another change is what the inspectors are looking for. As birds fly back at a maximum speed of slightly less than two seconds per bird, the inspectors are pulling birds off the line that have broken wings and drumsticks. That is correct. They are doing quality control for the profitable chicken industry.

Those things don’t make us sick; pathogens do. And you can’t see pathogens with the naked eye.

The modernized inspection system will be a copy of the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), something that has been in place in 20 broiler establishments for 14 years and the safety has been demonstrated repeatedly.

So, now to Mother Jones’ post and some clarification of statements made.

Quote: “That would mean there are three fewer inspectors for a production line running 25 percent faster.”

Not true. That statement, first of all assumes there are four FSIS inspectors in every chicken plant, and that just is not the case.

Secondly, it fails to explain that the birds will still be inspected for bruises and fractures, but the company will be paying for that quality control, not you and me, the tax payers.

Quote: “The department expects to save $90 million over three years by firing inspectors.”

Again, not true. The USDA’s leaders at the Food Safety and Inspection Service estimate that 1,500 full-time slaughter inspectors will get upgrades from GS7 to GS8 and be moved from on-line jobs inspecting a chicken carcass every 2 seconds, 30 every minute, 180 every hour, 1,480 every day to an off-line position in their plants.

These off-line inspectors are trained to provide verification measures such as examining the plant records, focusing on HACCP plans, drawing samples for pathogen testing and doing visual examination of the plant and its contents for sanitation issues.

Off-line inspection will not only bring better compensation, but those inspectors in the current HIMP say that the work is much more stimulating and personally rewarding.

Over the time frame of implementation, Dr. Hagen has told me that there may be a reduction of 750-800 positions, but she also has told me that “this will be done entirely through attrition without backfilling, etc.—no layoffs.”

So why the uproar about jobs anyway? Isn’t efficiency something we want more of from our government? Well, if the bargaining unit loses 800 members they lose dues and maybe a chairman.

Quote: “To control pathogens, the poultry plants would be allowed to conduct ‘online reprocessing’ — that is dousing all the bird carcasses that pass through the line, ‘whether they are contaminated or not,’ with water laced with chlorine.”

Oh My Gosh. Another attempt to inflame the consumers just like the lean finely textured beef that had been treated with ammonia for 20 years to make it safer to eat.

Guess what? This is not a new treatment to try and reduce the pathogen load. It has been routine in most large plants for years.

The article has a quote from Food and Water Watch that states the highest error rate in HIMP plants was with inspectors missing dressing defects such as feathers. Again, that is a plant quality assurance problem and not a public health concern.

About one-third of the article is about worker safety. This only serves as a distraction and is an OSHA concern, not a food safety concern. The companies can hire as many workers as they feel they need to safely fabricate these carcasses.

So many discussants try to work in the number of FSIS FTEs, the safety of the worker and the economics of the industry.

This is ALL about food safety and bringing poultry inspection into the 21st century. The rest, like saving dollars, more affordable poultry meat and who does quality control are not the issues that will affect my health as I age.

Lower Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination rates will do that. And more off-line inspectors can do just that.

Here’s hoping that as a result of all the misdirected debate, and the misinformation being distributed, the Obama Administration will not “chicken” out on its announced goals.

© Food Safety News
  • Lisa M.

    Smaller processing facilities located nearer to smaller farms with tighter quality and safety controls would make for safer poultry too. Large agri-business is the elephant in the room that’s never really addressed when conventional sites like this talk about food safety. Thanks, but I prefer not to have my poultry doused with chlorine to make it ‘safer’. It’s another bandage on problem, not a solution.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.loulis Paul Loulis

    Dead on analysis of what the real issues with the PSR concerns. Condemnations for pathology/disease conditions industry wide are miniscule. Let the plants do their own QA. You’re bringing a little sanity to what many want to be an emotional one.

  • Mackenzie Dierks

    Great points that many people seem to struggle with, essentially the quality vs. safety issue. I’m always grateful when someone takes the time to break them apart and explain them rather than lump them together to freak people out.