poultryinspection_406x250Enlistments in the  U.S. Department of Agriculture’s New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) will likely increase in the new year after the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Dec. 21 tossed a legal challenge to the program. The optional NPIS offers the biggest change in poultry inspection since the Eisenhower Administration. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) says NPIS will prevent nearly 5,000 Salmonella and Campylobacter foodborne illnesses each year. But NPIS has been off to a slow start, possibility because of the legal cloud hanging over it. Only about one dozen of the 219 chicken and turkey processing plants in the U.S. have transferred over to the new poultry inspection rules. Most of those were in the pilot program that preceded the NPIS. About 50 poultry processing plants have expressed interest in the program, but they’ve been waiting in the wings, according to FSIS. A three-judge panel from the Federal Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals has now removed the legal cloud by ruling that the non-governmental organization Food and Water Watch lacks the legal standing to challenge USDA’s rule making authority. The unanimous appeals court upheld the District Court decision that also went against F&WW. “A careful examination of allegations demonstrates that they (Food and Water Watch) have not plausibly alleged that the NPIS substantially increases risk of food borne illness compared to the existing system,” Judge Robert L. Wilkins wrote. With two individuals joining it as Plaintiffs, F&WW was unable to persuade the judges it faced that the optional NPIS poises more risk for foodborne illness than the standard system. Those  arguments were also rejected by USDA during its rule making process. The optional NPIS requires poultry companies do their own sorting or quality control before chicken carcasses are presented to FSIS inspectors, who in turn are suppose to more frequently remove birds from the evisceration line for close food safety examinations, take samples for testing, check plant sanitation, verify compliance with food safety plans, observe live birds for signs of disease or mistreatment, and ensure plants are meeting all applicable regulations. Unions representing meat inspectors, however, opposed the optional NPIS and the pilot program that preceded it out of fear of job cuts and concerns about increased line speeds. The pilot program got underway in 1997, stirring controversy and court battles that held off change for 18 years. Line speeds under NPIS are capped at 140 birds per minute, which USDA says is consistent with existing inspection programs. When she dismissed the original lawsuit against NPIS, U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson said the Plaintiffs opposition was based “on anecdotes and speculation” with a “myopic view” of the pilot program and “sheer speculation bad things might happen.” The appellate judges upheld her 58-page decision.