The USDA has privatized poultry inspection, though there's no evidence its pilot program worked.
Talk about the fox guarding the hen house! With virtually no fanfare, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced on January 20th that poultry processing inspections have been privatized — granting authority to processors to oversee their own lines with no government oversight.
Food & Water Watch obtained more than 5,000 pages of documents that show that current regulations are not observed by company inspectors, as chickens move past them on processing lines at speeds of up to 200 birds a minute. — MOTHER
Washington, D.C. — The Secretary of Agriculture and Undersecretary for Food Safety announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) plan to proceed with a program that would privatize the inspection of poultry products in the United States. Food & Water Watch vehemently opposes this plan and any other attempts to privatize food safety functions that are the responsibility of the federal government.
“This proposal is unacceptable and violates the department’s legal obligation to protect consumers by inspecting every carcass and every bird produced in USDA-inspected plants,” said Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter.
The USDA has been running a pilot project with this new inspection scheme in two dozen slaughter facilities since 1998. In these plants, line speeds have been permitted to run as fast as 200 birds per minute, which is several times faster than other poultry slaughter plants. Reports from these plants indicate that the company employees who perform inspections that used to be performed by USDA inspectors are not properly trained or given the authority to take necessary action to stop unsafe product from leaving the plant.
An initial review of more than 5,000 pages of documents that Food & Water Watch recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act indicates that current regulations are not being enforced by company inspectors. For example, the records show that bile, sores, scabs, feathers, and digestive tract tissue are often not being properly removed from chicken carcasses.
Before the release of these documents just last week, the USDA has provided virtually no data or analysis of how this pilot program is working. The Government Accountability Office issued a critical report on the pilot program in 2001, and there has been no independent evaluation of how well this privatized scheme has been working since.
“The agency claims that the salmonella rates in the pilot project plants are lower than the rates for plants that receive conventional inspection. But given the GAO criticism of the design of the program and the fact that production practices can be easily be manipulated during government testing periods, FSIS’s claims are suspect,” said Hauter.
“This plan by USDA illustrates how much power the meat industry has inside this agency,” continued Hauter. “Handing over food safety inspections to companies to perform themselves is unacceptable. Food & Water Watch will oppose any attempts to do so in meat and poultry inspection or food safety programs run by the Food and Drug Administration. USDA must abandon this plan that puts industry interests above consumer protection.”
Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable. So we can all enjoy and trust in what we eat and drink, we help people take charge of where their food comes from, keep clean, affordable, public tap water flowing freely to our homes, protect the environmental quality of oceans, force government to do its job protecting citizens, and educate about the importance of keeping shared resources under public control.