House Amendment to Farm Bill Would Spur USDA Action on Flawed Poultry Slaughter Rule

by Matt Shudtz

Hot on the heels of a USDA Inspector General’s report that highlights the failings of privatizing pork inspection, the House yesterday approved an amendment to the Farm Bill that pressures USDA to institute the same type of system in the poultry slaughter industry.  The poultry rule, which we’ve written about in this space before, is not yet in final form, but the poultry industry and its supporters are pushing it in that direction.  The Inspector General’s report adds to the growing list of reasons why the USDA should scrap the proposed poultry rule and come up with a better way to modernize food safety inspection programs.

The USDA Inspector General reviewed a 15 year-old pilot program in which swine slaughter facilities were granted waivers from current regulations, plant employees were given the responsibility of certain inspection tasks, USDA inspectors were moved off of the slaughter lines, and the line speeds were allowed to increase.  Dubbed the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), the program is virtually identical to the pilot HIMP project that was more recently introduced in the poultry slaughter industry.  The Inspector General’s review of the swine HIMP revealed that 3 of the 10 plants cited with the most NRs [noncompliance records] from FYs 2008 to 2011 were HIMP plants. In fact, the swine plant with the most NRs during this timeframe was a HIMP plant—with nearly 50 percent more NRs than the plant with the next highest number.

To make matters worse, the report notes that In the 15 years since the program’s inception, FSIS did not critically assess whether the new inspection process had measurably improved food safety at each swine HIMP plant—a key goal of the HIMP program.

To a cynic, it may not be surprising that USDA avoided a thorough review of the HIMP program, given the noncompliance history of the swine plants that were part of the program and the agency’s goal of making HACCP-based inspection systems permanent in swine and poultry slaughter facilities, alike.  To its credit, USDA has completed at least a partial review of the poultry slaughter HIMP, although Food & Water Watch has released reports indicating that USDA’s review missed the mark.

The Inspector General’s report is the second independently researched produced document to raise concerns about the poultry slaughter rule in recent weeks.  The other, an interim report from NIOSH about worker safety in a South Carolina poultry slaughter facility, provided evidence of high rates of musculoskeletal problems in plant workers.  Those serious health problems are likely linked to the ergonomic hazards of quick and repetitive motion, which would only be exacerbated by the increased line speeds allowed under USDA’s proposed rule.

The poultry slaughter rule was on the fast track at one point (OIRA’s 44-day review was inordinately fast).  When public interest advocates raised significant concerns about food safety and threats to workers during the notice-and-comment process, it slowed down.  Congressional pressure to speed it back up is misplaced, especially in light of the Inspector General and NIOSH reports.

 



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