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Published August 04, 2014, 09:37 AM

Poultry inspection rule won't increase line speed

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on July 31 announced a new long-awaited poultry inspection rule that will require companies to conduct microbiological tests for patho-gens that cannot be seen by the naked the eye, and will remove federal inspectors from the beginning of lines. But the rule will not increase the speed at which young chickens can whiz by the inspectors.

By: Jerry Hagstrom , Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on July 31 announced a new long-awaited poultry inspection rule that will require companies to conduct microbiological tests for patho-gens that cannot be seen by the naked the eye, and will remove federal inspectors from the beginning of lines. But the rule will not increase the speed at which young chickens can whiz by the inspectors.

The point of the new rule, Vilsack said, is to modernize poultry inspection, and he predicted it would reduce the incidence of foodborne illness. Under the rule, companies would perform some functions that federal inspectors have performed in the past, and Vilsack said that change would give USDA inspectors time to perform more important tasks, such as looking for sanitation concerns in the plants.

Vilsack said the rule, including the new testing requirements for salmonella and campylobacter, will be effective Aug. 1, but companies will have to decide how to phase it in.

The rule has been subject to intense criticism from unions and consumer groups, which have said the change is a way for the government to reduce the number of inspectors and the government is turning over key food safety responsibilities to the companies.

But Vilsack said he considers the rule finalized July 31 to be different from the one that was criticized, adding that the focus should be on the required testing and the decision not to allow an increase in the line speeds.

The final rule should be “judged on its merit,” he said.

The inspection system under which there would be no federal inspector at the beginning of the line is an option that plants can adopt, Vilsack said.

Inspectors at the beginning of the line have been looking for birds with bruises, Vilsack said, but it is in the companies’ own interest to look for birds with bruises because consumers would probably reject them. In addition, bruised birds are not necessarily unsafe, he added.

The rule calls for USDA to maintain an inspector at the end of the line who would look for fecal matter and other problems.

Although Vilsack said removing inspectors from the beginning of the lines would free inspectors to perform other tasks such as testing and sampling, there would apparently be the possibility of a reduction in force. Vilsack said he could not say whether there would be a reduction in the number of inspectors because it is unclear how many companies will adopt the new inspection system. The inspectors that work in the plants with the new system will have much more training, he said.

Line speed

Although food safety advocates have expressed concerns about the food safety impacts of the new system, Vilsack said the main concern expressed in the comment period was about the line speeds, and he noted that the line speed would remain at a maximum of 140 birds per minute. In turkey plants, the line speed can be increased from 51 birds per minute to 52 birds per minute.

During tests of the new system, the line speed has not been faster than 131 birds per minute, Vilsack said.

The question of line speed has been a matter of much controversy. Union and consumer advocates said they had a hard time getting USDA officials to pay attention to their concerns about that issue, but the situation seemed to change after Vilsack had a meeting with the National Council of La Raza.

USDA is responsible for food safety, while the Labor Department is responsible for worker safety, but Vilsack signaled that USDA will play an increased role in worker safety in the poultry plants. An 800 number will be established so the employees can report unsafe working conditions, Vilsack said.

National Chicken Council President Mike Brown applauded Vilsack for finalizing the rule.

“We look forward to reviewing the contents of the final rule and working with the department and our members on proper implementation, should our members choose to opt in to the new, voluntary system,” Brown said.

Regarding line speeds, he added:

“It is extremely unfortunate and disappointing that politics have trumped sound science, 15 years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute,” Brown said.

“The rule also goes against global precedent, in which the limiting factors for line speeds are the ability to meet food safety standards, keeping workers safe, and the capability of the equipment to run effectively — not government regulations,” he said. “Broiler plants in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Belgium and Germany, among others, all operate at line speeds of 200 or more birds per minute.”

But Food & Water Watch denounced the release of the rule.

“With the poultry industry standing to gain financially due to increased production and fewer regulatory requirements, the plan is a gift from the Obama administration to the industry, one that will undermine consumer and worker safety, as well as animal welfare,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

Hauter said she considered the decision to cap the line speed at 140 birds per minute rather than 175 birds “not a meaningful victory because there are not accompanying worker safety regulations to deal with the musculoskeletal disorders and other work-related injuries that both the plant workers and USDA inspectors suffer every day working in the poultry slaughter plants.

“In addition, the one USDA inspector left on the slaughter line under this new rule will still have to inspect 2.33 birds every second — an impossible task that leaves consumers at risk.”

Hauter also criticized the Obama administration for not making the final rule public and creating a new comment period, since the Office of Management quickly agreed to the rule and sent it back to USDA, which released it.

“Food & Water Watch is exploring if there are any further options to stop the rule,” she said.

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