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Low-Budget Poultry Inspection – Ready or Not

Opinion

Now that FSIS is moving forward with the Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule, it’s time that all stakeholders face the issues identified in recent months. Standardizing industry training and methods of carcass sorting, worker safety, changing the carcass-by-carcass law, and classifying Salmonella as an adulterant are issues that have not been properly addressed by anyone. Is ANY of this going to happen? Not likely.

The unfortunate part of  the so-called “modernization” of poultry safety is that it doesn’t modernize much. It cuts the FSIS budget and workforce, which was done in advance of even knowing whether the kinks were worked out of the new system. It increases profits for this industry, which is perfectly fine unless it comes at the cost of worker safety. And it potentially causes compromises in consumer safety if not correctly implemented.

Having watched this program from the very beginning, I know well the potential for success and failure of this model. It has potential. When it was designed, it immediately cured critical problems that FSIS line inspectors were experiencing: repetitive hand-motion injuries, mental fatigue, muscular-skeletal disorders, among others.

Unfortunately, it now transfers those problems to plant employees who do not have the protections that federal workers enjoy. Many will say this is not true because plant workers are protected by OSHA standards. Those who believe this live an illusion and have not spent much time in the reality of poultry processing. Plant workers will suffer the pain to protect their low-wage jobs, jobs that they cannot afford to lose in a world of poverty in small-town America.

It is up to Congress to cause the meaningful implementation of this new system. FSIS and the industry have dropped the ball on the NIOSH study, dropped the ball on the GAO report, and turned a deaf ear to many consumer safety group’s concerns, while staying in the news with recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks from poultry products. To allow this “modernization” to take place without some honest repair will be a disaster.

Here’s the problem. It is one thing to get a model program running in a first-class plant that has incentives to ensure the project’s success. These plants have large-scale corporate money advancing the project to make it run as well as possible to keep the corporate image intact and moving forward. It is entirely another situation to be in a plant that is running close to the edge on profit and loss and is then being forced to implement a program it is neither interested in nor equipped to put into place. This is the reality, and everyone involved knows it.

There are those who may say that, if these companies cannot compete, that’s their problem, and the market will take care of that issue. Well, there are two problems with that idea. One, the consumer bears the penalty of the transitional period when poor processing conditions put contaminated and diseased poultry into commerce. Second, it is not a fair practice for FSIS to do a poor job of implementing a program so that the big companies can take over the smaller companies. This hurts not only the companies; it hurts consumers. Read “The Meat Racket” for a glimpse into the world of corporate takeovers and price-fixing.

No, USDA is a marketing service for the poultry business — all of it, and not just part of it. And FSIS is a regulatory entity for consumer protection. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.

And to those who say that FSIS will effectively regulate the implementation of the new system, I have two words: “Foster Farms.” The regulatory machine that is FSIS is stumbling along at best. FSIS routinely bullies small plant operators yet allows large plants to run while poisoning the public. The agency bends and turns along pressure lines that range from big-money agribusiness to media exposure and Congressional pressure and to influences other than science. FSIS will be under serious pressure to make the new system work.

When “HIMP” first got off the ground in 1999, I visited plants that had chronic Noncompliance Records for fecal contamination. The plants did not implement effective preventive measures as required under the federal law for daily failures of its HACCP system. To expect FSIS to be able to shut down plants and slow down a huge poultry-producing machine is ludicrous.

No, Congress is responsible for this program. (See my article, “Is HIMP Circling the Drain?” in Food Safety News, April 28, 2014.) They have heard every detail and are fully aware of the problems. Congress has an oversight committee with the power to get this right. They are fully aware of FSIS breakdowns in addressing issues of worker safety and performance integrity. The monkey is on Congress’ back to get this right. Again, chances of that happening are almost nil.

As I previously stated, the system, with some modification, has the potential for being an improvement over the current program.

The current state of the project is far from being ready for prime time.

© Food Safety News
  • John Munsell

    Mr. Sewell, your comments are spot on! Your statement of FSIS breakdowns in performance integrity could not have been better stated. Integrity and FSIS are mutually exclusive terms.
    John Munsell

  • Food Microbiologist

    I agree that FSIS is too often influenced by industry’s wishes*. But I disagree that HIMP is a bad thing. Slaughter inspection is based on old assumptions that eyeball inspection can detect public health hazards. For funzies, read the lists of carcass defects in 9 CFR 311 and 9 CFR 381K (381.79-381.93) and ask yourself, “Which of these defects are worse than highly virulent and invisible bacteria?” If reduced inspection resources due to HIMP are reallocated to reducing the genuine public health hazards, such as those coming into slaughter plants, then I believe HIMP is a “Good thing”. If those inspections resources are not allocated to reducing health hazards, then I agree HIMP is not living up to its promises.
    * As a FSIS staff officer for 26 years, I observed first hand many instances where regulations and ethics were stretched or broken. For example, why do “Uncured” products contain celery powder? Why has labeling of mechanically tenderized products taken so long but labeling previously frozen poultry was accomplished within a year?

  • BB

    Let’s face it. It doesn’t matter who’s inspecting the chickens. As long as we continue using the current industrialized agriculture model from the growers to the plate, we will have high levels of Salmonella and Campy on our raw chicken. I’ve seen numerous plant trimmers that were better “inspectors” than the USDA inspector. And why does any of this matter anyways? USDA has been perfectly content to tolerate Salmonella in raw chicken for years…..remember it’s not even an “adulterant.”