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USDA’s Poultry Proposal Endangers Eaters, Not Just Employees

Opinion

Ever hear the one about how the well‐dressed accomplice caused a scene at the front door of the bank, while the masked robbers snuck in through the back and made off with the loot? Let that be a lesson to us: when we all train our eyes in one direction, we may miss the real danger lurking behind.

As USDA appears to be ramping up a pre‐release publicity campaign on the new poultry inspection system, the agency is struggling with the commotion at the front door, where the food inspector’s union is firmly opposed to changes that could make the slaughter inspection business even more dangerous for employees. The agency continues to try to highlight the cost savings to companies and to the government, without acknowledging the harm that could be done to workers and consumers. But there is another equally troubling element in the proposal: that there is no requirement for plants to test for the pathogenic organisms that are nearly omnipresent in raw poultry.

When USDA proposed its poultry inspection overhaul in 2011, unions were right to be concerned. The agency’s changes are both serious and sweeping: in addition to dispensing with much of the existing testing protocols, they propose to reduce inspectors and increase speed on the slaughter lines, and to shift responsibilities in the sorting room from inspectors to plant employees without requiring training, among others. Many of those changes would make a dangerous business even more so, and would do it without waiting for the findings of even a single long‐range study from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about how it would affect slaughterhouse workers.

This is no small affront, given that these workers serve as the first line of defense for ensuring that safe food reaches consumers (just as farm workers do for produce). But it is not just workers who should be concerned about the possible rules—anyone who eats poultry should be concerned about the proposal on public health grounds.

The Obama Administration’s idea of “modernizing” poultry inspection is to permit each regulated company to decide what it wants to test for and how frequently. If you liked the results of letting banks regulate themselves, you may like the results of having big poultry companies controlling efforts to prevent contamination of meat and poultry. The tests and results would vary by company, making meaningful comparison impossible and limiting USDA’s ability to assess its program’s effectiveness or conduct strategic planning and reduce threats.

These threats aren’t theoretical either. Hundreds of outbreaks and thousands of illness each year are linked to poultry, many from dangerous bugs like Salmonella and Campylobacter. CSPI’s recent report, Risky Meat, showed chicken and turkey on the top two tiers of a risk pyramid that ranked not just foodborne illness, but severe foodborne illness. That means the illnesses linked to poultry aren’t just inconvenient—they are far more likely to require hospitalization than many of the other meats we commonly eat. By the way, do you think USDA will stop at poultry or is this the future of beef and pork inspection too?

In 2011, Congress passed an important law to improve the safety of foods that FDA regulates (foods other than meat and poultry). It’s high time that Congress updated the Poultry Inspection Act, which was passed more than 40 years ago, and makes USDA more prevention‐oriented as well.

But rather than making wholesale change through rulemaking—and doing so in a sly manner that makes consumer advocates immediately wary that they have been disenfranchised—wouldn’t it be better to gather all stakeholders together to begin the difficult, necessary process of making meat and poultry safer? For an administration that lauds transparency, it is shocking for USDA to propose dramatic changes to poultry inspection without even the benefit of a single public hearing.

If the goal of the project is truly to maximize public health, the agency should institute each change separately, spacing them out and gathering data at each new phase. It is not only common sense, but good science to assess each new change individually in representative slaughterhouses to determine if it has a measurable effect—positive or negative— on the frequency of contaminated birds.

If the experience of passing a new food safety law for FDA taught us anything, it is that consumers, industry, and regulators can work together to further the goals of public health. Similar consensus was reached in the mid‐1990s, when then‐Secretary Dan Glickman convened all stakeholders in a series of public meetings to map out a modern program for preventive controls in meat and poultry products.

When all parties trust that they share a common goal—to prevent illness—alliances like these can move mountains of public health policy in the right direction.

When consumer and worker advocates speak out so strongly against a proposal like the one put forth by USDA to overhaul poultry, it should give everyone pause. Rather than speeding up the process and dashing for the getaway car, the agency should slow down and heed the alarms of its stakeholders.

© Food Safety News
  • Oginikwe

    Oh, goody! The high potential for food-borne illnesses AND arsenic. Yum!

  • Mike_Mychajlonka_PhD

    Many in the meat industry have repeatedly stated that the safety of meat products is a simple and straightforward matter. Consumers merely need to cook it properly. The goal, often bandied about, is an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This admonition if provided in the apparent full understanding that cuts of meat heated to that high a temperature are going to turn into something tough and tasteless. The beauty of this position is that only the consumer is squarely to blame. It is one thing for the meat industry to adopt a ” . . . blame the victim” public relations strategy. The concept is hardly new. What would be new (and unfortunate) is for USDA to enshrine a ” . . . blame the victim” PR policy into its regulations. If successful, how long would it be before a new legal defense theory is advanced, that because the consumer is complicit in his/her own illness there can be no basis upon which a lawsuit can possibly be brought against a meat producer as the result of the outbreaks we read about on a daily basis.

  • ecofoodologist

    Thank you Mike. The problems and the answers are not so complex. Only when one delves into the back story of conflicted interest of profit takers affecting policy do we find the crux of the challenges. Producing edible food costs more than growing commodities that people must sterilize before eating and those who grow and produce edible food should be allowed a level playing field to compete with the commodity giants. Agencies that tip the balance toward “big ag” do not serve the public. ef