Yesterday, USDA submitted its draft final rule on poultry slaughter “modernization” to OMB for formal review. This rule, as regular readers of CPR Blog will remember, would remove USDA inspectors from poultry slaughtering facilities, transfer some of their food safety and quality control duties to plant employees, and allow the plants to increase their line speeds to an astonishing 175 birds per minute. On top of that, the rule allows each plant to develop its own testing protocols for E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter and other food-safety concerns. It’s the foxes guarding the henhouse, for sure.
Along with many of our allies in the worker health and safety and food safety communities, we have been urging USDA since early 2012 to go back to the drawing board with this ill-advised rule. USDA published its proposed rule in January 2012 without consulting with its inspection advisory committee, without holding public meetings to solicit other stakeholders’ views, and – especially galling – without seeking input from OSHA.
In the two and a half years since USDA proposed the rule, we’ve seen a steady stream of bad news for the proponents of the rule:
April 2013: NIOSH releases an interim Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) report on a poultry slaughter facility that was attempting to get special permission to adopt the “modernized” inspection scheme before the final rule goes into effect. Interim HHE reports rarely surface publicly, but this one had such striking results that its release was inevitable. Among other findings, NIOSH discovered that 42 percent of worker-participants had evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome and 41 percent of worker-participants worked in jobs above industry standards for hand activity and force.
April 2013: Kimberly Kindy, writing in the Washington Post, highlights the tragic story of a USDA inspector who died of kidney and lung failure potentially linked to the chemical brew that was used to disinfect chicken at the plant where he worked. Plants are likely to increase the use of these chemicals if the rule goes forward.
September 2013: GAO criticizes USDA for failing to thoroughly evaluate the performance of pilot projects that USDA had initiated to test the validity of its “modernization” proposal. In its characteristically dry tone, GAO concluded: “USDA may not have assurance that its evaluation of the pilot project at young chicken plants provides the information necessary to support the proposed rule…”
October 2013: Kimberly Kindy, writing in the Washington Post, highlights the potential for increased animal abuse problems if poultry slaughter facilities increase their line speeds as the rule would allow.
March 2014: NIOSH releases its final HHE report on the facility described above, noting an “alarming prevalence” of carpal tunnel syndrome among workers in the plant and cautioning that “increasing the number of birds processed per worker may result in an even higher prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome than seen in this NIOSH evaluation.”
April 2014: The NIOSH final report led to an “interagency throwdown,” in which USDA officials tried to downplay the findings only to have their claims repudiated by NIOSH’s Director, Dr. John Howard, who called USDA’s spin-attempt “misleading.”
For workers and consumers, this rule presents huge risks. USDA has been operating in a black box since proposing the rule in early 2012, so it is unclear what changes might have been made to answer the concerns raised by the public interest community and other government agencies. OMB should send this rule back to USDA with a “return letter” that instructs the agency to at least release the draft publicly, if not start from scratch.