What’s the Problem?
The size and speed of meatpacking plants has skyrocketed over the last several decades, making it harder to ensure that the meat and poultry produced there are safe and wholesome. Rather than slow down and ensure good sanitation, the industry wants to rely on chemicals to try to disinfect bacteria like Salmonella and sterilize feces that might still be on a carcass.
And now, the meat industry is pushing for privatized meat inspection that relies on company employees to inspect meat and poultry for safety.
For years, we have fought to maintain a strong, well-funded government meat inspection system. Government inspectors are necessary to watch over the industry to make sure that dangerous bugs like E. coli and salmonella don’t contaminate our food. Current proposed rules, which would rely on a regulated inspection system, perfectly exemplify why privatizing such an important safeguard is a terrible idea.
Case Study: The USDA’s Filthy Chicken Rule
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wants to implement a new program called the “New Poultry Inspection System,” but a more apt name would be the “Filthy Chicken Rule.” If implemented, this rule would privatize poultry inspections, decreasing the number of USDA inspectors in plants and replacing them with untrained company employees. It would also allow line speeds to go from 140 birds a minute to 175 birds per minute.
This system has been in place in a handful of slaughter facilities since 1998 in a pilot project called the HACCP-based Inspection Model Project (HIMP). The majority of these pilot plants are young chicken slaughter plants, with a few turkey and market hog slaughter plants included in the pilot.
We requested testing results from the USDA under the Freedom of Information Act in August 2011. You can examine our analysis, which notably revealed:
- Company employees miss many defects in poultry carcasses. The inspection category that had the highest error rate was "Other Consumer Protection 4" for dressing defects such as feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass. The average error rate for this category in the chicken slaughter facilities was 64 percent and 87 percent in turkey slaughter facilities. In one turkey slaughter facility, nearly 100 percent of samples found this category of defect.
- The data showed wide variation in the number of defects missed from plant-to-plant. There seems to be no consistency across the industry.
- The overwhelming number of non-compliance records filed for the 14 plants was for fecal contamination found on the carcasses. Out of 229 NRs filed from March to August 2011, 208 (90 percent) were for visible fecal contamination that was missed by company employees.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has questioned the results from the pilot study. Their report, requested by Senator Kirsten Gillilbrand (D-NY), evaluated 20 young chicken and five young turkey plants and reveals gaping methodological flaws in the pilot project. The GAO rightly questioned how the USDA could use its flawed evaluation of the pilot project as the basis to propose expanding the privatized inspection model across the entire poultry industry.
Food & Water Watch is challenging this privatized inspection program in court.