IT has been two-and-a-half years since the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a rule to modernize the U.S. poultry inspection system that is touted as a way to help prevent more than 5,200 foodborne illnesses every year.
First proposed in January 2012, the rule finally heads to the Office of Management & Budget's (OMB) Office of Information & Regulatory Affairs for review.
The proposal would allow poultry plants to increase their line speeds up to 175 chicken carcasses per minute, with a single inspector on the slaughter line. Currently, plant line speeds are limited to about 35 birds per minute per inspector. The rule would be voluntary, phased in and would require more off-line inspections.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has consistently defended the proposal, as savings have been included in the last two budget requests from the Administration. Vilsack said he is confident that the proposed modernization would reduce costs while not sacrificing food safety.
A 10-year pilot program to demonstrate the rule's effects showed an 11% decrease in the number of illnesses.
The National Chicken Council (NCC) and the National Turkey Federation (NTF) both welcomed the next step in the long-awaited process.
Because draft documents under review are considered deliberative and not available for public release, NTF has not seen the final rule but did submit comments in support of the proposed rule.
NTF president Joel Brandenberger noted that the draft detailed a "modern, sensible approach that will allow food safety inspectors to focus more closely on public health." Further, it described a revamped inspection system that would allow federal inspectors to shift to prevention-oriented inspection systems and redeploy resources in a manner that better protects the public from foodborne diseases.
USDA officials reportedly said "significant" changes have been made to the proposed rule, which received more than 175,000 public comments.
Major setbacks have resulted from consumer groups that fear that the rule privatizes poultry inspections and essentially deregulates the meat industry.
NCC launched an informative website, www.ChickenInspectionFacts.com, designed to help consumers and the media better understand both the traditional and modernized inspection processes.
"In an attempt to save a few federal union jobs that have proven unnecessary over the past 15 years, the inspectors union and their allies have spread many misconceptions about this inspection system and chicken processing in general," NCC president Mike Brown said. "We hope this new website will serve as both an educational tool and resource. After learning the facts, I'm sure taxpayers want their hard-earned tax dollars going towards federal inspectors performing tasks like testing for salmonella instead of cutting broken wings off of chicken carcasses."
After reports that the proposed rule has been significantly changed, Food & Water Watch is calling on the Obama Administration to publish the revised rule now, open it up for public comment for 120 days and hold public meetings during that comment period — something USDA refused to do when the rule was first proposed.
"USDA can't be allowed to rush this rule through without thorough consideration," Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter said.