Setting the Record Straight on the Obama Administration’s Privatized Poultry Inspection System

Published Aug 4, 2014


Let’s take a closer look at what this new inspection system will actually do.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a press conference last week to announce the final rule for the “New Poultry Inspection System” (NPIS). I listened in, and noted that he made certain statements that were not completely accurate. Some of the written materials provided to the press did not tell the whole story either. Unfortunately, this is par for the course, regardless which party controls the executive branch. That’s because the poultry industry influences much of the policies that come out of the USDA, and the powers-that-be don’t even try to disguise this fact. 

Let’s take a closer look at what this new inspection system will actually do: 

At the present time, chicken slaughter plants that are subject to conventional FSIS inspection can run their line speeds to 140 birds per minute (bpm). Current regulations limit what each USDA inspector can inspect to 35 bpm. So, if a plant were operating its slaughter lines at 70 bpm, there would be two FSIS inspectors stationed on that line – with each inspector looking at every other bird. If a plant were running its lines at the maximum 140 bpm, there would be four FSIS inspectors stationed on each line – with each inspector inspecting every fourth bird. In a young turkey plant, the current maximum line speed is 52 bpm, with each USDA inspector looking at a maximum of 26 bpm.

What do FSIS inspectors look for on these slaughter lines? Secretary Vilsack continues to argue that they only look for cosmetic issues such as bruises, blisters and broken bones. This is not true. FSIS inspectors are trained to look for animal diseases such as leucosis, septicemia, tumors and airsacculitis, and for visible fecal contamination where pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter are found. If these issues are not addressed on the slaughter line, the chances increase that meat from sick and contaminated birds will find its way to our dinner tables. Yet Secretary Vilsack repeatedly denigrates the role his employees play in this process, both to their detriment, and to that of consumers. This may explain why in recent surveys of federal government employees, the morale of USDA employees ranked among the lowest.

In 1998, USDA began pilot projects in both chicken and turkey slaughter plants that removed most FSIS inspectors from the slaughter line, turning their responsibilities over to company employees. Plants participating in the pilots could also increase their slaughter line speeds to run as fast as they wanted, provided the plants could provide “process control.” The pilots were called the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) in slaughter. FSIS left one inspector at the end of each slaughter line in these pilot plants to satisfy the statutory requirements of the Poultry Products Inspection Act for carcass-by-carcass inspection. The on-line inspector was only able to look at one side of the carcass whizzing by and could not look inside the cavity of the bird. Each slaughter line was assigned an off-line FSIS verification inspector responsible for sampling up to 80 birds per eight-hour shift to verify that company employees were catching all defects on the carcasses.

Yet in the spring of 2011, one of the HIMP young chicken plants was permitted by FSIS to run its slaughter lines as fast as 220 bpm. That means that the one FSIS employee on the slaughter line was “inspecting” nearly four birds every second. The off-line verification inspector was looking at 80 out of 105,600 birds, or 0.00076 percent of the birds slaughtered in an eight-hour shift.

That experiment did not seem to work, because when USDA finally proposed its rule to privatize poultry inspection for all chicken plants in January 2012, it set the maximum line speed at 175 bpm for young chicken plants. That would require the on-line USDA inspector to instead look at three birds every second. What a concession! Turkey slaughter plants participating in HIMP were allowed to increase their line speeds to 55 bpm, so the remaining FSIS on-line inspector was inspecting one bird per second.

When it became evident in August 2011 that the Obama administration was going to expand the pilot to include all poultry plants, Food & Water Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for inspection data from 11 of the young chicken plants and three young turkey plants to evaluate how well this privatized model was working. FSIS did not respond to our request until the middle of January 2012 when it sent 5,000 pages of handwritten tally sheets for us to evaluate, and over 100 pages of non-compliance reports filed by off-line USDA inspectors that documented regulatory violations. The following week, Secretary Vilsack held a press conference announcing the department’s intent to propose expanding the privatized inspection model to all poultry plants. On January 27, 2012, the proposed rule appeared in the Federal Register.  

Because we were forced to perform hand calculations of the tally sheets FSIS sent, it took us until early March of 2012 to complete our evaluation. How well employees caught food safety and wholesomeness violations varied from plant to plant. In one turkey HIMP plant, Food & Water Watch identified a 99 percent error rate in just one inspection category alone. The documents also revealed that over 90 percent of the non-compliance reports filed by FSIS verification inspectors against the HIMP plants were for visible fecal contamination, most of which was found inside the cavities of the bird carcasses, something that an on-line FSIS inspector would not be able to catch. 

We were not the only ones who questioned the effectiveness of the pilot program. At the request of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on the FSIS pilots, finding significant problems with the system.

When asked by a reporter during last week’s press conference whether the final rule addressed the concerns raised by the GAO, Secretary Vilsack claimed that most of the GAO report dealt with the HIMP pilot in hog slaughter. In reality, most of the GAO report evaluated the two poultry pilot programs. Perhaps Secretary Vilsack confused it with the May 2013 report filed by the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General that also trashed the HIMP pilot for hog slaughter. The final rule did not, in fact, address the issues raised by the GAO.

The comment period on the proposed rule ended on May 29, 2012. What took USDA so long to publish the final rule? FSIS received over 175,000 comments, most of which were opposed to the proposed rule. Furthermore, worker safety advocates made compelling arguments that the rule did not take into account the increased workplace injuries that would be incurred by poultry plant workers by allowing plants to increase their line speeds, an issue we raised as early as 2007. 

When Secretary Vilsack announced last week that the final rule would be published, he repeatedly stated that because of the arguments made by the worker safety advocates, the line speeds would be capped at 140 bpm at all young chicken plants. Yet a review of the final rules reveals that some chicken slaughter plants, some of the largest in the country, will be allowed to run their lines at up to 175 bpm, and all turkey plants will be permitted to increase their line speeds to 55 bmp, despite notoriously poor worker safety conditions. 

Moreover, not all remaining young chicken plants will be prevented from increasing their line speeds under the final rule. In a report comparing the HIMP young chicken plants with 64 comparably-sized poultry plants not participating in the pilot, FSIS stated that the range of line speeds in the non-HIMP plants ranged from 81 to 140 bpm, with the average 115 bpm. So, plants running at below 140 bpm at the present time will be permitted to increase their line speeds under the final rule.

The Obama administration has disappointed labor advocates. They were promised policies that would make it easier to organize workers, and the administration has failed to deliver. Regulations to improve worker safety have not materialized. The final rule on poultry inspection does not contain meaningful worker protections, or clear enforcement mechanisms for the few crumbs on worker safety that the rule does mention. In fact, it relies on FSIS inspectors to call the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) if they spot any safety violations in the plants. So, in addition to performing their food safety work within these plants with a reduced workforce, the remaining FSIS inspectors are to become part-time whistleblowers for OSHA.

On the same day that Secretary Vilsack announced that the final rule on privatized poultry inspection would be published, FSIS rejected a 2011 petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and supported by Food & Water Watch that would have made certain strains of salmonella and campylobacter adulterants. It is currently legal to sell poultry products contaminated with these pathogens. Secretary Vilsack claims that the privatized poultry inspection system will prevent 5,000 food borne illnesses a year, but it is unclear how. According to the Centers for Disease Control, salmonella causes over one million food borne illnesses a year, and campylobacter causes another million. 

With the petition’s rejection, the only hope is for Congress to pass H.R. 4966, the Pathogen Reduction and Testing Reform Act, introduced by Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY), that gives USDA the legal authority to declare certain strains of salmonella and campylobacter adulterants. This legislation will be the only way to reduce food borne illness caused by those two pathogens. With the deregulation of inspection, USDA likes to throw around the word “modernization.” So why doesn’t the agency modernize its approach to food safety, arming its inspectors with real tools to prevent food borne illness? I guess because the industry would object.

This final rule is flawed—in terms of both food and worker safety. The poultry industry is celebrating and rightfully so — the Obama administration just handed them the keys to the candy store.


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