Don't chicken out on poultry inspection (commentary)

Don't chicken out on poultry inspection (commentary)

ON April 24, 2013, Mother Jones ran a story by Tom Philpott titled "USDA Ruffles Feathers with New Poultry Inspection Policy."

Like so many posts I read about the proposed new poultry inspection system, it is loaded with innuendos and inflammatory comments and is often just plain wrong.

To lay the groundwork for this response to Philpott, let's talk about modernization of the poultry inspection system.

First of all, the Poultry Products Inspection Act was signed into law in 1957 by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower. A lot has changed since then, but not the way the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects poultry.

One of the less obvious things that has changed is the condition of the birds we eat. Back then, the intent of the law was to have federal inspectors in poultry slaughter plants look at carcasses for things that might harm our health, like tumors, abscesses and signs of sepsis.

Now, the birds are much healthier and much younger as a result of advances in animal husbandry and genetics over the last 56 years. Most of today's broilers go to harvest between 35 and 42 days of age.

Another change is what the inspectors are looking for. As birds fly by at a maximum speed of slightly less than two seconds per bird, the inspectors pull birds off the line that have broken wings and legs or still have feathers attached. They are doing quality control for the chicken industry.

Those things don't make us sick; pathogens do. You can't see pathogens with the naked eye.

The modernized inspection system will be a copy of the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), which has been in place in 20 broiler establishments and five turkey plants for 14 years, and its safety has been demonstrated repeatedly.

There will still be a Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) inspector on the line, but the carcasses delivered will be sorted already. If the inspector finds feathers, sepsis, etc., he or she will be able to shut down the line — something that is not possible in today's establishments with conventional inspection.

Currently, there is one off-line inspector per plant doing food safety procedures. With the new system, there will be one per line. If those added off-line inspectors find unacceptable salmonella contamination rates, they can shut down the lines. That is not possible today either.

So, in Philpott's post, some clarifications need to be made:

* "There are three fewer inspectors for a production line running 25% faster."

Not true. First of all, that statement assumes that there are four FSIS on-line inspectors in every chicken plant, and that is just not the case.

Second, it fails to explain that federal inspectors, i.e., union members, will be replaced by inspectors paid by the establishment and that the birds will still be inspected for bruises and fractures, but now the company will be paying its own employees for that quality control instead of you and me, the taxpayers, being on the hook for the cost. Also, more than four people will be on the faster lines in order to protect the brand name.

* "The department expects to save $90 million over three years by firing inspectors."

Again, not true. FSIS estimates that 1,500 full-time slaughter inspectors will get upgrades from GS7 to GS8, moving from on-line jobs inspecting a chicken carcass every two minutes (30 birds per hour, 240 birds per day) to an off-line position in the plants.

These off-line inspectors are trained to provide verification measures such as examining plant records, focusing on hazard analysis and critical control points plans, drawing samples for pathogen testing and visually examining the plant and its contents for sanitation issues. They are trying to protect public health, not brand name integrity.

Off-line inspection will not only bring better compensation, but inspectors in the current HIMP say the work is much more stimulating and rewarding.

Over the implementation time frame, USDA undersecretary for food safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen told me that there may be a reduction of 750-800 positions, but she also told me that "this will be done entirely through attrition, without backfilling, etc., no layoffs."

In other words, no inspectors get fired. None.

So, why the uproar about jobs? Isn't efficiency something we want more of from our government?

Well, if the bargaining unit loses 800 members, it loses income from dues, and maybe a chairman gets replaced. It's a silly reason to keep the status quo, if you ask me.

* "To control pathogens, the poultry plants would be allowed to conduct 'online reprocessing' — that is, dousing all the bird carcasses that pass through the line, 'whether they are contaminated or not,' with water laced with chlorine."

Wow! That's obviously another attempt to inflame consumers, but guess what? This is not a new treatment to try to reduce the pathogen load; it has been routine practice in most large plants for years.

The article quotes Food & Water Watch stating that the highest error rate in HIMP plants was inspectors missing dressing defects such as feathers. Again, that is a plant quality assurance problem, not a public health concern. I buy chicken meat, and if I find feathers, I don't get sick; I just change brands.

About one-third of the article is about worker safety. This only serves as a distraction and is a concern for the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, not a food safety concern. The companies can hire as many workers as they feel they need to safely fabricate these carcasses.

So many discussants try to work in the number of FSIS full-timers, worker safety and industry economics.

This is ALL about food safety and bringing poultry inspection into the 21st century. The rest — like reducing costs, more affordable poultry meat and who does quality control — are not the issues that will affect my health. Lower salmonella and campylobacter contamination rates will do that — and more off-line inspectors can help get us there.

Here's hoping that as a result of the misdirected debate and all the misinformation being distributed, the Obama Administration will not "chicken" out on its announced goals.

*Dr. Richard Raymond is a former U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food safety.

Volume:86 Issue:05

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