Philip Derfler, deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, touted the new proposed rule on poultry inspection last week at a Food and Drug Law Institute’s conference.

Under current policy, FSIS is responsible for examining all poultry carcasses for blemishes or visible defects before they are further processed. Under the proposed rule, the agency would shift this quality-assurance task over to the poultry plant so that it can devote more of its employees to evaluating the company’s pathogen-prevention plans and bacteria-testing programs.

“There’s very few food safety defects, and a whole lot of food quality defects,” said Derfler during FDLI’s Food Week conference. “Basically what we’re saying is that our inspectors looking at quality are doing the work of the plant. In this budgetary environment, it just doesn’t make sense for government employees to do that kind of work.”

Inspection personnel are being moved down the line — to right before the chiller — to make sure there’s no fecal material on the birds, or no other food safety defects, before the birds take the plunge into the cooling bath. It will require “a whole lot less inspectors,” said Derfler.

The way things are now, USDA limits the line speed to 35 birds a minute per inspector, and four inspectors per line. Under the new rule, the line speed will be allowed to go up, from the current limit of 140 birds per minute, to 170 birds per minute, Derfler explained. “It’s up to the plant to determine the line speed.”

“We’re going to emphasize food safety, totally, as the emphasis for what we’re doing,” said Derfler. “Our inspectors are going to look at food safety. We’re going to do a whole lot more checking for Campylobacter and Salmonella on the birds. We’re going to require that as part of their HACCP plan, and we haven’t done this before, that enteric pathogens are a hazard reasonably likely to occur, and that the birds have to be free of fecal material before they enter the chiller.”

“Used to be … there was some question as to, well, the birds would go in and any fecal material, any Salmonella, would just circulate in the water,” said Derfler. “I know, you guys just ate chicken.” (To awkward laughter).

Derfler said he believes the changes are significant.

“We believe that the proposed rule will have a number of significant effects. First of all, it’s going to better align our employees with the work that they should be doing, they’re going to be focused on food safety, they’re not going to be doing the quality work for the plant. The number of FSIS inspectors is going to go down. We’re going to be eliminating, over a period of time, which we think we can handle with attrition, somewhere between 800 and 1,000 jobs.”

“Finally, we really do believe that product is going to be a lot safer as a result,” added Derfler. “Salmonella … is the one that FDA and FSIS had not been able to make a dent in.”

“We can’t tolerate that, we’re going to do more.”

Derfler also noted that the poultry rule is facing some real hurdles. “It’s only a proposed rule. It’s being opposed by our union — we have a very strong union. It’s also opposed by some of the consumer groups. We’ve already gotten over 4,000 emails telling us not to privatize poultry inspection, which we don’t think we’re doing.”

Food & Water Watch has been very critical of the proposed move.

“Food & Water Watch vehemently opposes this plan and any other attempts to privatize food safety functions that are the responsibility of the federal government,” said the consumer watchdog group in response to the recent announcement.

  • Richard

    I hope they do some good. They could start by looking at the law. If the FSIS Inspector is not the first one to look at the bird then they will not see the indicators of the health of the bird. That has been the case hidden from pulblic view. Their data is what FSIS can not see, not what a good job the plant inspectors have done. Contagious Commutable diseases? Wholesoness? 9 CFR 381.76 (Post-Mortem Ispection)(bird by bird)(No viscera or any part there-of shall be removed )(except at the time of Post-mortem inspection)(9 CFR 381.81 – 381.93)(9 CFR 96 “Inspected For Wholesomeness (By)the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)In HIMP Plants that has not been happening. But the UNION got the upper pay grades as usual. Now everyone stands to pay the price. Look who will gain? Be sure to cook it so you don’t find out how the rules came to be.

  • Mike Smith

    I have worked in poultry processing facilities for over 30 years in many capacities.
    The USDA/FSIS inspectors on the line are responsible for checking for more than food quality defects. The inspectors examine hands-on the outside of each bird, the visceral cavity, and the viscera at 35 birds per minute, with the defective birds immediately being removed from the line. They check for pathology, mutilation, and contamination. The diseased birds that have nasty diseases such as Leukosis, Imflammatory Process, Airsacculitis,and Septicemia/Toxemia, are immediately condemned or salvaged if possible.
    With the new inspection system, the inspector would be at the end of the line looking at the birds as they pass by at 140-180 birds per minute. They would not even have to touch the birds. There would be no examination of the viscera, or the inside of the body cavity where many diseases can be detected.

  • Desert rose

    I’ve worked in poultry plants for over 20years and worked when they were running traditional inspection to the last plant was running the lines at 140 bpm. I could never figure out how the one ” housechecker” at the end one the line was able to see, trim or pull off carcasses that were needed to be trimmed!!!
    As for letting the plants “take over” that “quality checking” aspect….. as I once wrote to Rep. Blanche Lincoln one time “How can you expect plants to trim/throw away what need to be done when they want to save everything they possibly can?” I understand plants need to produce as much as they can, but not at the consumers exspense. One plant I worked in we used to “hang back” the carcasses with feed,fecal or gall contamination, and ones that needed off line trimming. Then the plant told us(the inspectors)for a few(test) days we were to not hang back “minor contamination” that the housechecker and post trimmer would get them taken care of. For those few days there was hardly any contamination at all!! Then slowly but slowly the contamination started getting bad again but we were told to “let the system work and only hang back to reprocessing if contamination was around the size of a quarter.”!!!
    All you have to do is look and see how many NRs are wrote for fecal failures and contamination on 10 bird pre-chill checks.

  • Karen

    I understand that this country is in deep trouble and cuts in all departments must happen and it will and it must happen. Working in poultry plants for many years and feel that there is much change needed in the way things are done. Some of you sound like you have been there and if you have been there you know that line inspection was for the most part a joke,depending on who the doc or SCSI was and how close they were to the plant. And most know even when things were found you were told to just let it go and if you tried to do your job the plant would complain to the SCSI or Doc and you would be told to let it go. Most all off line inspectors spend most of there time in the office reading news papers or flirting with plant personal,you know it and I know it so all this complaining about some loosing there jobs are there own fault and if you would have cared about your jobs you would have done your jobs. The sad thing is that most off lines will keep there jobs and still pretend to do them by writting a few NR’s to make it look like there doing something and will go right back to doing nothing and getting paid for it.

  • Anthony S. Foster

    “Used to be … there was some question as to, well, the birds would go in and any fecal material, any Salmonella, would just circulate in the water,” said Derfler. “I know, you guys just ate chicken.” (To awkward laughter).”
    Well played. But not true. There hasn’t been fecal allowed to enter the chiller for quite a while. To tout that as one of the changes we are making is a bit ridiculous even if effective as propoganda it makes you a lair.
    What is really happening in FSIS, and what no one but me will say, is that the agency has waisted unfathomable millions on a “comprehensive analytical data system” that runs less smooth than an MS DOS command prompt system. It was the flop of the century and still is.
    The agency spent over Seventy Million Dollars in training expenses for all 6,000 of us to attend a training course that utlized training program that oeprated completley different than the program we are using. A different program in the 70 million dollar course than what we use now that it’s turned on. No lie. Not only that, but the whole idea was a bunk to begin with. It was wrote by some people who don;t really grasp what we do, and has resulted in millions of hours of sitting on our arse time and millions of dolalrs in new computer purchaces and new netwrok configurations because our communications infastructure was lacking, and still is.
    The program takes hours out of each inspector’s day in which they sit at a screen clicking entireley too much, clicking, clicking, clicking things that should have already been entered into the system and the same stuff we clicked yesterday, and the day before. Its hyper-redundant and collects millions of datapoints that will never be used in a meaningful way, has about half of its functions still in the planning stage, and has cost us enough money to educate ten thousand school kids all of the way through sixth grade. Thre training cost for this new program could have bought each inspector ten ipads.
    All of this meaningless clicking is costing the taxpayer millions in wages to have a high paid individual sitting behind a computer entering data that is irrelevant and never looked at. The FLSs can’t use the reports the way they were intended, and many, many functions leave even the end user scratching their heads (because it was programmed by someone unfamiliar with inspection.)
    Just like having inpsectors on the line checking quality issues for years and years and years, having someone click 23 times to inform Washington what regulations were verified when I went to see if the trash can was full is as asinine as calling the program comprehensive or anylitical. Our training is outdated; we do not know the growth cycles of pathogens, or what chemicals or safe. But we get hotel rooms in Dallas and fancy perdiem packages for weeks on end to learn how to click and point within the wrong internet based program we will never use.
    Where is the Technology zar when you need him? With websites like and why are we all flying to a hotel resort to learn the wrong program at a whopping $7,000 per person give or take? That’s the GDP of Ethiopia when you multiply it by all of the inspectors that went.
    Furthermore, why are we getting directives that do not apply? Why do I need a paper copy of the building A in Washington having a new phone system installed. I have email. I have access to the internet and data points that are already paid for by tax payers.
    I see two problems. The AFGE is a whiny little spoiled brat of an organization, and the agency managment are either too thick skulled or to scared to deal with things in a rational and calm manner. The agency gets reprimaned by the union for not issuing paper directives TO THOSE WITHOUT ACCESS, so instead of figuring out who has access and who doesn’t it reprints 50 gazzillion directives and sends them to EVERYONE all at once. It seems like they take the most expensive route to spend way too much money and then gripe and fire people.
    Who really profits when an agency of this size is this wasteful and this unorganized? No one. Food safety fails becuase all of the top notch employees run away. No one with ethics and morals will sit here and play this sorted political game of ignorance. The FSIS will end up with a bunch of mindless minion inpsectors if it continues to produce such unorganized an unethical repsonses to the union’s requests.
    John Cage is a moron. I usually don’t call names but every day I get an email from him asking me to call another senator a worthless piece of dung, or a traitor or something similiar. This is not how I see myself representing the American civil service and our union head shouldn’t either.
    Everyday I pray that eventually the AFGE will wake up and push this mindless agency with big wig political speaking heads to STOP waisting the operating funds. Stop piddling things away by not utilzing technology properly and stop sending me directives and notices that do not apply to me or even our agency.
    I understand that the post office needs to stay open, but at what expense? Hiding thousands of dollars a month worth of unnescessary mail in each department is ridiculous. Some of us have a heart.
    As far as getting rid of line inpsectors, AMEN. Anything they call can be eaten safely if cooked properlly. But then again so can salmonella. When you get down to eat, we are about 290% overstaffed because it shouldn’t be a permanent job. It should be sporadic visits. Basically, industry regulates itself these days; BRC and other customer audits do the work. And if you really want to get nitty gritty, the federal government was never intended to be a mother goose in the first place. It’s a bit ludicrous if you ask me that we spend our operating cash down to the T just to get more each year, drive around in fancy smancy government cars and call the shots in an industry we are really not prepared to regulate.
    Think about this for a food safety agenda, what happens to product when it leaves our oversight>? It goes to thousands and thousands of resteraunts where no is there to inspect it. Yet, here, in the processing plant there are 16 people clicking away at computers.