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Forget Food Safety? USDA Cans Poultry Inspectors

Fried chicken and biscuits
Fried chicken and biscuits
Flickr/travelingmcmahans

In the wake of a virulent salmonella outbreak at Foster Farms’ California plants that went on for over 16 months, the United States Department of Agriculture has decided to overhaul its poultry plant inspection protocol for the first time in nearly 60 years. (The Centers for Disease Control announced July 31 that the Foster Farms outbreak “appears to be over.”)

To that end, the government agency will be reducing the number of poultry inspectors on the floors of chicken-processing plants nationwide, by 770 positions.

Wait … what?

Well you see, the agency says it won’t need as many inspectors because it will be changing its procedures to stress the importance of examining food based on safety, as opposed to quality. Doing both might be nice, don't you think?

"This is a significant opportunity to bring the inspection system into the 21st century," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. 

With these changes, government food inspectors will be trained to better detect hazards within poultry plants and encouraged to test for pathogens in both foods and facilities, the USDA says. However, these new rules will not be mandatory, so companies who choose not to opt in will continue to have the current amount of government inspectors on site.

The rules will also allow companies to engage in a voluntary system where they can inspect their own birds for any pathogens before government inspectors come in. The USDA hopes that if companies are more proactive, the government will not need as many inspectors. If all companies opt in, the feds says, they can cut their inspectors by a quarter.

"By allowing plant employees to conduct some preliminary sorting duties, federal inspectors will be freed to further verify testing on the spot, examine sanitation standards and enforce safeguards throughout a processing plant," Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation, told FOX News.

Although the rules are voluntary, the nation's largest poultry companies are “expected” to follow them. And even if they choose not to, companies will be required to use microbiological testing at two separate points during the production process to help prevent salmonella and campylobacter. The USDA estimates that if companies choose to opt in, up to 5,000 foodborne illness could be prevented each year. (The CDC estimates that salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses in the United States each year, with about 23,000 hospitalizations.)

Also, the USDA anticipates saving $90 million over just a three-year period from the reduction in government-paid inspectors on plant floors, according to Politico. (Those 770 inspectors will still have jobs with the USDA, but they may have to relocate to other parts of the country, and some will be offered early retirement.) But we’re sure that had nothing to do with the decision.

So far, the chicken and turkey industries have praised the new rules. Gee, what a surprise.

One thing the industry didn’t get approval for, however, was an increase in inspection line speeds: The agriculture department said maximum line speeds for chicken and turkey processing plants would remain capped at 140 birds per minute. (I mean come on, surely you could squeeze a few more inspections into a minute — we saw it on I Love Lucy!)

At the same time, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has shot down the petition concerning antibiotic-resistant bacteria that the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been hounding them about for three years. The petition requested that the USDA reclassify four antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella as “adulterants” in ground meat and poultry products rather than as “naturally occurring,” so that the federal agency would have the teeth to force a recall should the virulent bacteria be found in food – as it's already classified E.coli.

“After thoroughly reviewing the available data, FSIS has concluded that the data does not support giving the four strains of [antibiotic-resistant] salmonella identified in the petition a different status as an adulterant in raw ground meat and raw ground poultry than salmonella strains susceptible to antibiotics,” reads the nine-page letter signed by Daniel Engeljohn, assistant administrator of FSIS’ Office of Policy and Program Development. In its denial, USDA said more data was needed.

“USDA’s failure to act on antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella in the meat supply ignores vital information about the public health risk posed by these pathogens,” Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for Center for Science in the Public Interest, responded in a statement. “Despite numerous examples of outbreaks linked to resistant pathogens, USDA leaves consumers vulnerable to illnesses that carry a much greater risk of hard-to-treat infections leading to hospitalization.”

“This is hardly the time to reduce USDA’s oversight of the poultry industry," she added.

Never say the government never did anything for you! (“You” being Mr. Ron Foster.)


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