Change is coming to the poultry industry, but not everyone is happy about it. Reforms to poultry plant inspections are driven in part by food safety concerns and government spending constraints. But there’s also the need to account for modern times.
Until now, inspections at poultry processing plants have been governed by a law written in 1957. It’s nine pages long. The new rule — finalized last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service — fills 379 pages. Even accounting for differences in font type and size, and formatting, there’s a whole lot more in this one.
Chicken and turkey industry groups generally support the changes, but critics include animal welfare advocates and the union that represents USDA’s inspectors.
Back in the mid-20th century, when the earlier rule was written, there was no provision for microbial testing. But for years now, both companies and the USDA’s inspectors have been monitoring for salmonella and campylobacter, the two bacteria in chicken most likely to make people sick.
“New regulation means that now this is mandatory,” said Dong Ahn, an animal science professor at Iowa State University who specializes in poultry processing and products. “In the past that is not mandatory.”
The government predicts up to 5,000 incidents of foodborne illness may be prevented annually under the new system.
Another change, though voluntary, is that companies and the government will now split the inspection duties into two related, but separate arenas.
“First, each carcass will be examined by company employees, and then later [by] USDA inspectors,” Ahn said. “And their focus is for safety issues, not the quality issues. In the past, [USDA inspectors] did both quality and safety issues.”
Shifting the first inspection of carcasses from the government inspectors to company employees doesn’t sit well with some people.
“Generally speaking the meat industry has not performed well when it’s been offered self-regulation opportunities,” said Wayne Pacelle, executive director of the Humane Society of the United States.
Other critics have said workers may feel pressured to please their supervisors and not the federal inspectors, who may catch workers’ mistakes. Also, some claim the required testing isn’t as robust as it could be.
But Pacelle and other critics found at least one thing to be content with. After much public comment about a proposal to increase the speed at which chickens move down the processing line, the government backed down.
“We were pleased that the line speed piece was extracted from the final rule,” Pacelle said. “They maintained the existing maximum line speed.”
But the 20 chicken and five turkey processors who have served as pilot plants testing the faster line speeds will be allowed to keep them.
The union representing federal inspectors also objected to the proposed speed. It remains concerned that the final rule will reduce the number of inspectors.
Stan Painter, president of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection locals, said too much responsibility will be shifted to companies.
“You cannot expect everyone to do as they’re supposed to do,” Painter said. “If we were all self-regulatory, then we wouldn’t be overweight, we wouldn’t be thieves, we would not be drug addicts…on and on and on and on.”
Painter has opposed the new rule since it was proposed more than 18 months ago because he says the goals included saving money—for both USDA and companies.
“Now as a regulatory agency, why the hell are we interested in how much industry’s going to save?” Painter said.
The government never promised industry it would save money. In the final rule, it provides estimates of how much the new rule will cost industry in additional labor and training, capital expenses and compliance paperwork, while noting potential savings from the elimination of some types of testing (for instance, for generic E. coli.). But it also shows savings to taxpayers — partly in the form of fewer federal inspectors. And that hurts the union.
Though now final, the Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule won’t take effect until at least the spring of 2015. Its publication in the Federal Register is pending, but from that date it will be at least another six months before the first round of implementations begins.