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.