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USDA Sends Poultry Inspection Rule to OMB

The U.S. Department of Agriculture submitted a draft final version of its Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule to the Office of Management and Budget for review today.

The proposal to build on the HACCP Based Models Project (HIMP) has been a controversial one.

Critics such as Food & Water Watch are concerned that the program privatizes poultry inspections, decreases the number of USDA inspectors, replaces inspectors with untrained company employees, and allows inspection line speeds to go from 140 birds a minute to 175 birds a minute.

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) position is that a system like HIMP will prevent at least 5,000 more foodborne illnesses annually. While the proposal would improve efficiency and save taxpayer dollars, the agency states that the rule shifts focus from visual inspection for defects to sampling for bacteria and control of the facility’s sanitary conditions.

“Although we do not discuss the specifics of a rule under review, the draft rule has been significantly informed by the feedback we received from our stakeholders, as well as from our interagency partners such as the Department of Labor,” an FSIS spokesperson told Food Safety News. “Specifically, USDA received numerous comments raising worker safety as a potential side effect of the rule, and it has partnered with the federal agencies responsible for worker safety to address these concerns in the draft final rule.”

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from August 2013 listed responsibility and flexibility, more focus on food safety, potential job creation and increased production as strengths of the program. But noted weaknesses included training, increased line speeds that have the potential to impact food and worker safety, and a reduced ability to see potential defects.

In a written response to a draft of the GAO report, then-Undersecretary of Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen agreed with the recommendations and stated that, when USDA issues the final rule, “FSIS will present the updated analyses, including the cost-benefit analysis, in a manner that will facilitate public understanding of the information used to support the rulemaking.”

FSIS has cited a study conducted by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to support the claim that the increase in line speed is not a significant factor in worker safety, although NIOSH Director John Howard has questioned whether this is a correct interpretation of the study.

In March, more than 100 organizations signed a letter to President Obama asking that the White House withdraw the proposed rule, and 68 members of Congress, including Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY), asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to do the same.

OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is limited to 90 days to review draft regulation, but the review period may be extended by the head of the rulemaking agency, and the OMB director may extend the review period on a one-time basis for no more than 30 days.

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