This post was written by CPR President Rena Steinzor and Media Manager Ben Somberg.
The White House issued a fact sheet last Friday presenting “Examples of How the Sequester Would Impact Middle Class Families, Jobs and Economic Security.” The consequences of the impending budget cuts from the “sequester” are not some abstract problem; they’re serious dangers, like this one:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could conduct 2,100 fewer inspections at domestic and foreign facilities that manufacture food products while USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) may have to furlough all employees for approximately two weeks. These reductions could increase the number and severity of safety incidents, and the public could suffer more foodborne illness, such as the recent salmonella in peanut butter outbreak and the E. coli illnesses linked to organic spinach, as well as cost the food and agriculture sector millions of dollars in lost production volume.
We applaud the White House for explaining to the public the importance of our food safety system.
But here’s the irony: the Administration is simultaneously moving forward with a separate plan that would weaken the food inspection system in the area of poultry processing. The USDA issued a proposed rule in January of last year that will take many federal food inspectors off the poultry lines, replacing their work in part with less-trained company inspectors, and the agency is on the verge of sending the final version to the White House for approval.
The proposed rule was touted by the Administration as a shining example of its regulatory look-back initiative, which calls on agencies to divert resources away from the development of much-needed protections so they can instead look for existing rules to revise. The proposal would move the primary responsibility for poultry inspection from federal inspectors to poultry company employees, while at the same time not requiring that these employees undergo training on their new activities. Line speeds would be allowed to increase to a point where an inspector would have to look at three carcasses per second to check for blood, guts, and fecal matter. The rule would save the federal government about $39 million annually, and poultry producers about $259 million. (More on the proposal here.)
The USDA claims food safety would actually be improved. The available evidence suggests otherwise. Allowing plant employees to inspect the carcasses has actually been tried already under a pilot program. Last year, Food & Water Watch obtained, through a Freedom of Information Act request, the USDA’s own records of how those pilot programs fared. It turns out company employees frequently missed defects. Fecal contamination was the most common problem, though hardly the only one (read FWW’s summary if you ever need to reduce your appetite).
Food safety isn’t the only problem with the USDA’s plan; it would also threaten workers. Food processing is already one of the most dangerous jobs, and the plan will allow line speeds to increase up to an astronomical 175 birds per minute. The Administration usually touts the importance of interagency review for rules, but in this case it appears the White House and the USDA forgot to give the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) a chance to study and comment on the proposal before it was issued. The USDA is saying that the worker safety concerns will be addressed by studying the effects on worker injuries after the plan already goes into place.
The White House is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, last week’s fact sheet touting the importance of our food inspection system made the right case to the public. On the other, the Administration is moving toward finalizing a rule that will actually weaken that same system. The USDA should withdraw the rule and start over, this time giving serious consideration to the food safety and worker safety implications of any changes to poultry inspection. It’s far from clear that any inspectors should lose their jobs, and instead likely that their number needs to be increased. Line speeds are already too high and should be reduced, and substantially more high-tech testing would make the food supply much safer. Stripping off the minimal protections that already exist makes a mockery of the notion of “modernizing” food safety—in this case, penny wise for industry is extraordinarily pound foolish for consumers.