Consumer groups filed an amicus curiae brief with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in the case of Food & Water Watch v. USDA. The lawsuit challenges the agency's New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) rules, which allows poultry plant workers to do more bird inspections and help federal inspectors target strategies that USDA says will better strengthen food safety.
Organizations listed on the brief include the Government Accountability Project (GAP), Consumer Federation of America, Center for Foodborne Illness, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Nebraska Appleseed.
Director of GAP's Food Integrity Campaign (FIC), Amanda Hitt, said, "Not only have agency poultry inspectors raised serious concerns about this model, which is essentially a deregulation of the poultry industry, but it has also been criticized by numerous members of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, a diverse array of consumer protection, public health, and workers' rights groups, and 200,000 petitioners who care about food safety."
The brief supports a recent motion filed by Food & Water Watch to prevent the agency's scheduled implementation of the NPIS in poultry processing facilities nationwide later this month. The brief argues that the program violates the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) by shirking the agency's responsibilities under the Act and allowing poultry processing facilities to make critical determinations and perform key tasks that the Act plainly mandates be performed by government inspectors.
"This rule will likely mean that more tainted chicken will show up on America's dinner plates, because the role of federal food safety inspectors will largely be taken over by company employees," said Michelle Lapointe of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Many poultry workers already face firing or other repercussions for speaking up about injuries or work conditions. They are not likely to risk their jobs by slowing down the processing line to remove every tainted chicken."
The brief relies heavily on inspectors' statements, which stem from a GAP investigation into their concerns. GAP spoke with several individuals who have experience working in poultry facilities operating under the new program. Seven of these inspectors provided GAP with sworn affidavits illustrating the program’s harmful consequences, including that it would undermine the quality of the nation's poultry supply.
Hitt stated, "Under this system, key decisions about the sale of potentially diseased birds are motivated by the desire to maximize profit rather than protect the public. It enables the industry to return to many of the very unsavory practices that prompted Congress to pass the Poultry Products Inspection Act over 50 years ago. Because government inspectors no longer have a meaningful supervisory role, poultry plants are able to conceal unsafe and unwholesome defects from inspectors and divert adulterated poultry into the food supply."
The joint brief also points out that the USDA's rulemaking process did not include public meetings to enable all interested stakeholders and individuals to orally comment on the rules prior to their enactment this year, another violation of the PPIA.