By Wenonah Hauter
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch
Late last week, Food & Water Watch received information that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was going to permit a trade association — the National Chicken Council — to collect data in poultry plants to assess the rate of foodborne pathogens in chicken parts. The information came in the form of an e-mail from the Assistant FSIS Administrator for Field Operations Daniel Engeljohn, informing his district managers that he was aware of the effort and gave his full blessing to the project. What was troubling about the e-mail was that it told the district managers that the purpose of the data collection was for the industry to develop its own voluntary pathogen performance standards that it was going to enforce on poultry processing plants. It went on to say that FSIS inspection personnel assigned to the plants were not to interfere with the National Chicken Council data collection and that they had no right to look at the data that was collected.
In other words, the poultry industry would create the standards for pathogen levels in chicken parts, and they would only “voluntarily” stick with them. Not only would the industry be able to decide how much salmonella or campylobacter there is on your chicken, but there would be no USDA enforcement of the standard.
Welcome to the latest in privatization of chicken inspections that the industry is pushing, with the USDA’s blessing. Another example is the “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection,” the proposed plan whose “modern” twist is to turn most poultry inspection over to the very companies that produce our poultry, leaving only one government inspector per plant to inspect over 175 birds per minute — or three birds per second.
This hasn’t happened overnight. The industry has been chipping away at the USDA’s mandate to protect our food system for over a decade. Since the late 1990s, FSIS has established pathogen performance standards on the meat and poultry industry. The standards were supposed to be enforceable, but the agency lost a critical court case in 2000 when the industry successfully challenged their legality because the current meat and poultry inspection laws are silent on pathogen standards. There were a couple of attempts by Congress in the early 2000s to give FSIS authority to set enforceable pathogen performance standards, but they failed. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) recently introduced a bill, S. 1502, The Safe Meat and Poultry Act, that would give FSIS that authority, but that bill has still not received a hearing.
In the meantime, FSIS has continued to set pathogen performance standards, but they are voluntary for the industry. For salmonella, FSIS will post on its website monthly those poultry plants that fail the agency’s testing program. The agency has claimed that its sampling program has shown that the levels of salmonella in whole raw chicken carcasses have been declining in recent years. However, the Centers for Disease Control continues to report that the number of food borne illnesses attributed to salmonella remains stubbornly high.
In 2010, Consumer Reports conducted its own study of food borne pathogens found in chicken parts. Consumers rarely buy whole chicken carcasses, but they buy chicken parts in packages at the grocery store. It found that 62% of the chicken parts they bought and analyzed tested positive for campylobacter and 14% tested positive for salmonella.
In response to the Consumer Reports findings, FSIS – to its credit – began a study to assess the levels of pathogens in chicken parts. In 2012, it posted the results of its survey on its website, which found that 26.3% of the chicken parts were contaminated with salmonella and 21.4% were contaminated with campylobacter. Agency officials have indicated that it was their intent to set government pathogen performance standards for chicken parts. In fact, the Salmonella Action Plan released by the agency in December 2013 listed that as one of the activities for FY 2014 Now, we find out that the industry is going to set its own standards that it will enforce.
In December 2013, Consumer Reports released data on a new study on pathogen contamination in chicken parts that found 43% of the chicken breasts sampled were contaminated with campylobacter and 10.8% with salmonella.
In light of the rule proposed by FSIS in January 2012 that would turn over most inspection responsibilities over to the poultry companies to perform themselves, the Engeljohn e-mail seems to indicate that there is a dangerous deregulatory effort underfoot that would take FSIS out of the food safety business altogether. Instead of trying to enhance its ability to regulate food safety standards, this agency seems to be turning the keys over to the industry to police itself. That is not in the interest of public health and it needs to be stopped.