For more than a year now, food safety and worker safety advocates have been fighting a proposal out of USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service that would pull most government inspectors off poultry slaughter lines in favor of potentially un-trained company inspectors, speed up the lines, and allow companies to use additional antimicrobial chemicals to cover up expected increases in contamination. Today, President Obama released a proposed budget that indicates USDA’s proposal will be finalized before the start of FY2014 (see pages 86-87)—a rebuke to advocates who have made a strong case against the USDA proposal.
As we’ve noted before,
- The proposed rule is bad for food safety. USDA has tried out pilot programs that allowed poultry slaughterhouses to speed up their lines and move government inspectors off those lines. Food & Water Watch obtained compliance records and found troubling results, including that bile, sores, scabs, feathers, and digestive tract tissue are often not being properly removed from chicken carcasses.
- The proposed rule is bad for workers in the plants. As the lines speed up, so does the pace of work at the “live hang” and “rehang” stations. Fast and repetitive motions are a serious ergonomic hazard that will only be exacerbated as line speeds increase. Workers who will be saddled with the responsibility of doing the visual food safety inspections currently conducted by government inspectors are also being set up for retaliation by their employers if their inspections cut into processing speeds or profits.
- The proposed rule will pollute local waterways, an issue first noted here in this space yesterday. As companies speed up their lines and lose government inspectors, fecal contamination and other microbial problems are expected to crop up more often. So poultry plants are expected to increase their reliance on something called “online reprocessing” (OLR), where all carcasses, visually contaminated or not, pass through automatic sprayers on the line that drench them with large amounts of antimicrobial chemicals like chlorine and trisodium phosphate (imagine a car wash … but for chickens). Existing regulations and water permit programs are not equipped to handle large increases in the chemicals used in OLR.
- USDA has failed to account for the true costs of the proposal. USDA failed to properly account for the food safety, worker safety, and environmental costs of this proposal.
The President’s budget suggests that most of these concerns, raised by a broad coalition of the public interest community, have been ignored in a headlong rush to finalize a rule that officials believe will save a few million dollars in USDA’s multi-billion dollar budget (as well as save money for poultry processing companies). Yet, some hope remains that the rule is not written in stone. The President’s proposed FY2013 budget also assumed that the rule would be finalized before USDA’s budget was set. That did not happen, and it shouldn’t this time, either.