Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Iowa congressional candidate Christie Vilsack, who have been married for almost 40 years, are publicly at odds over a controversial plan to expand a semi-privatized poultry inspection model.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has proposed a rule to broadly expand the HACCP Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), which limits the number of FSIS inspectors on duty and largely turns over physical inspections to company employees while allowing plants to speed up their lines to 175 birds per minute, over the current 140 bpm limit.
FSIS says the proposal will modernize an outdated inspection system, save taxpayers around $90 million over three years, and prevent 5,200 foodborne illnesses each year. The industry is also strongly in favor of the proposal, which USDA estimates would save poultry processors more than $250 million annually.
Tom Vilsack reportedly told the president of the American Federation of Government Employees last month that expanding HIMP was fueled by budget cuts: “He said it’s budget cuts — we have to do it,” John Gage told the Washington Post.
But consumer advocates, government employees unions, and ABC News have been extremely critical of the plan and on Wednesday Democratic congressional candidate Christie Vilsack went on the record with her concerns as well.
After Washington, DC-based Food & Water Watch and the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Local Unions held a small rally outside her Iowa campaign headquarters, Mrs. Vilsack released a statement outlining her concerns about expanding HIMP.
“We must ensure that our food is inspected and produced safely,” said Mrs. Vilsack. “In addition, we must ensure that those working in agriculture and food processing have safe working conditions. Before any changes are made to the way poultry is inspected, we need to ensure that workers aren’t being placed in danger and that the safety of our food is not compromised. In addition, we should not privatize jobs. There are inherent concerns with allowing companies to inspect themselves, especially with an increase in line speeds that could make inspection more difficult and raise safety issues. I look forward to learning more about this issue and talking with those most affected by it.”
So, are Mr. and Mrs. Vilsack discussing the merits of HIMP at the dinner table? It doesn’t sound like it.
In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Christie Vilsack said she was still gathering information about the rule and wants to visit a poultry processing facility. She said Mr. Vilsack had explained the proposal, but they will no longer discuss the matter.
“I won’t, now that I’ve made that statement, I will not ever talk to my husband about it again. Or, I should say, he will not talk to me,” she told the Register. “He made it clear that we will not be talking about this again. But he certainly educated me on the department’s position.”
The rule is still open for comment. The USDA recently extended the comment period to May 26 in response to critics.