Crashing the USDA’s 150th Birthday Party
By Walker Foley
“On behalf of the department, we’re delighted to share our 150 years as part of this Folklife Festival. 150 years. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s our birthday.”
That was USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan as she welcomed onlookers to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall yesterday afternoon. I was there alongside other Food & Water Watch staff, coalition partners – the National Consumers League, the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards and the American Federation of Government Employees – and a dozen helpful interns. We had heard the USDA planned to give a food safety demonstration for the average consumer, and couldn’t help but enjoy the irony accompanying their demonstration.
As the Food & Water Watch savvy already know, the USDA has been pursuing a pilot program for little over a decade that purports to cut meaningful food safety inspection out of the budget, and out of poultry plants all over the United States. We decided it best to inform the crowd by handing out an abridged version of a recent LA Times editorial, aptly retitled by the Arizona Daily Star, “New US approach to poultry safety isn’t safe at all.” USDA organizers did not appreciate our efforts, and didn’t hesitate to tell us – more on that in a moment.
Merrigan’s speech glossed over the USDA’s mission statement, and gave a brief history of the USDA from its inception in 1862 to the present. However, one statement struck a poor chord and, had we not flyered the entire audience, may have gone unnoticed.
“We create jobs and economic opportunity in the nation’s rural communities. We help keep America’s food safe,” she said. But her words fell short of the truth, as the USDA’s new approach to poultry inspection would do just the opposite – eliminate jobs of skilled USDA food safety inspectors (about 800 of them) and increase conveyor line speeds. With fewer inspectors and faster birds, the process begs for higher rates of contamination.
Shortly after Merrigan’s speech USDA workers gave a food safety demonstration in a specially-zoned area of the Mall. This was a no-free-speech zone, where we were not allowed to give flyers to participants. We quickly found ourselves directed out of the enclosure (a three foot mesh fence) by USDA event organizers. But the damage was done. We had already put a flyer in the hand of every participant.
If you would like to wish the USDA a happy 150th birthday, then call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard – 202-224-3121 – to be connected with your Senators and Representative. Let them know you don’t support this unsafe approach to the nation’s poultry production.