Around 100 poultry inspectors gathered outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday, right under Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's window, to protest a proposal to expand an inspection system that shifts federal inspectors away from inspecting for quality defects and allows slaughter lines to speed up.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is responsible for examining all poultry carcasses for blemishes or visible defects before they are further processed. Under the proposed rule, the agency would transfer much of this quality-assurance task over to the poultry plants so that it can devote more of its employees to evaluating the companies' pathogen-prevention plans and bacteria-testing programs.
It basically moves the federal inspector further down the line, to right before the chiller, to make sure there's no fecal material on the birds before they take the plunge into the cooling tank.
FSIS argues that the system, formally known as the HACCP Based Inspection Models Project, or HIMP, will improve food safety and save taxpayer dollars. The consumer group Food & Water Watch, and the inspectors at the rally, take issue with the entire proposal, arguing that it privatizes inspection and puts consumers at risk. A handful of plants have been a part of the HIMP pilot program for 12 years.
According to a peer-reviewed risk assessment, expanding HIMP would save FSIS $85 to $95 million over the next three years and be a $250 million boost to poultry companies, which will be able to crank up line speeds and process birds at a faster pace, all while reducing an estimated 5,200 poultry-caused illnesses each year.
"Cutting the budget does not justify putting the health and safety of consumers and workers in the balance," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of FWW. "USDA inspectors receive extensive training to protect public health in poultry facilities, but there is no similar requirement for company employees to receive training before they assume these inspection responsibilities in the proposed privatized inspection system. This short-sided thinking could actually cost the federal government more to deal with a potential increase in foodborne illnesses caused by unsanitary, defective poultry and meat."