The U.S. Department of Agriculture published the final rule of its Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection on Thursday, requiring all poultry processing plants to engage in additional microbiological testing and establishing the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS), which companies can choose to opt into or not.
Predictably, the agency’s move drew reactions from across the spectrum.
“USDA is to be commended for standing up for food safety in the face of significant pressure,” said National Turkey Federation President Joel Brandenberger, adding that the rule “provides additional tools to plants and federal inspectors to verify that plant food-safety programs are protecting against foodborne illness.”
One of the major complaints about the rule when it was proposed in 2012 was that it increased the maximum inspection line speed to 175 birds per minute. USDA said it heard these comments and decided to keep the maximum at 140 birds per minute as allowed in its other inspection systems.
The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) — the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S. — had a modestly positive reaction to the line speed change.
“Responding to a key concern raised by the courageous poultry workers who exposed the human cost of bringing chicken to our dinner plates, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez today took an important step to prioritize worker safety,” said NCLR CEO and President Janet Murguía. “Although life-altering injuries are already far too widespread among this workforce, I am proud to say that the collective efforts of tireless advocates helped the administration prevent a bad situation from becoming worse.”
Joe Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, thanked “coalition partners in labor, food safety and the civil rights community for standing side by side with us throughout this process.” In his statement, Hansen also thanked the U.S. Department of Labor “for raising important safety questions” and Vilsack “for listening to our concerns and taking the necessary steps to fix this rule.”
But not everyone was pleased with the outcome. Some groups say that 140 birds per minute — with 0.43 seconds to inspect each bird — is still too fast.
“This is not a meaningful victory because there are not accompanying worker safety regulations to deal with the musculoskeletal disorders and other work-related injuries that both the plant workers and USDA inspectors suffer every day working in the poultry slaughter plants,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.
Industry was disappointed with the line speed change for a different reason: “It is extremely unfortunate and disappointing that politics have trumped sound science, 15 years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute,” said National Chicken Council President Mike Brown. “The rule also goes against global precedent, in which the limiting factors for line speeds are the ability to meet food safety standards, keeping workers safe, and the capability of the equipment to run effectively — not government regulations. Broiler plants in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Belgium and Germany, among others, all operate at line speeds of 200 or more birds per minute.”
Others are still wary of the rule’s ability to address food safety concerns.
“This rule means fewer USDA food safety inspectors in poultry slaughter facilities, which is a recipe for more foodborne illness and more people in the hospital,” said Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY). “We fully expect industry will flock to the more lax HIMP processing, which has not been supported by rigorous evaluation.”
While also dealing with the denial of their petition to USDA to have strains of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella declared as adulterants, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that, “With more than 600 people sick from the Foster Farms outbreak alone, this is hardly the time to reduce USDA’s oversight of the poultry industry.”© Food Safety News