More than 100 organizations signed a letter sent to President Obama on Thursday asking the White House to withdraw the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule on the “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection.” The organizations signing on to the letter cover a range of interests, from organic food retailers such as Hummingbird Wholesale to groups such as ProgressOhio, Friends of the Earth, and even a vegan chef company called “Taste of Raw.” In the letter, the groups accuse the proposed rule of allowing poultry company employees to take over the jobs of 800 USDA inspectors by reducing the number of inspectors watching birds on evisceration lines and adding more off-line inspectors performing microbial testing. “The department is promoting this change as an opportunity to modernize the inspection program,” the letter reads. “But what it boils down to is an attempt to cut USDA’s workforce by putting the health and safety of consumers and workers at risk.” According to Food and Water Watch, one turkey plant involved in a pilot program had employees missing 99 percent of food safety and wholesomeness defects on birds. One counterpoint brought up in past discussions by USDA officials has been the statistic that agency inspectors only find “infectious conditions” on four individual birds out of every 100 million. The letter also raises the issue of line speeds, which it says will be allowed to increase to 175 birds per minute, up from the current 140. Currently, lines are allowed to run at speeds of 35 birds per every inspector on the line, up to 140 birds a minute with four inspectors. Under the new rules, one inspector would monitor a line that could potentially run at 175 birds per minute. “Proper inspection cannot occur at these excessive line speeds, whether conducted by a trained USDA inspector or a company employee,” the letter reads. USDA has said that the low rate at which inspectors find problems is the reason for moving them off the line and into jobs that involve microbial sampling for illness-causing pathogens. Another point made by USDA and poultry industry representatives is that line speeds may increase for slaughter and evisceration processing, but not on the “second processing” line, which they say involves the majority of employee food handling. (Food Safety News published more information on the debate around line speeds and worker safety yesterday: “Debate Grows Over Poultry Worker Safety Under Proposed HIMP Regulations”) The proposed rule places responsibility for protecting consumer safety on plant employees, but it does not require any training before they perform duties normally done by trained government inspectors, the letter goes on to say. The rule also puts workers at greater harm by increasing line speeds, it adds. Several workers’ rights organizations have opposed the proposed regulation, including the American Federation of Government Employees, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Council of La Raza. “The proposed rule would let the fox guard the hen house, at the expense of worker safety and consumer protection,” the letter concludes. “We urge you to stop any further consideration of this ill-conceived proposal.” USDA says that its proposed rule is meant to modernize the poultry industry to better deal with microbial threats such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. The proposed rules would be the first major changes to industry inspection since the 1950s. Because inspectors cannot detect microbial contamination with the naked eye, USDA has said it makes sense to place more emphasis on microbial contamination testing of chicken carcasses. Plants would also be required to establish plans for how to mitigate pathogenic contamination – something they are not currently required to do. Part of the proposed rules, the HACCP Inspection Models Project, has been operating as pilot programs in roughly two dozen poultry facilities for more than 15 years. While there is no timeline for when, or if, HIMP and its related poultry regulation will be expanded beyond the 30 pilot plants, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week that the Obama administration’s budget for fiscal 2015 provides less funding for the Food Safety and Inspection Service because of changes that will eliminate some poultry inspection jobs.