* Plan would save $90 mln over three years for USDA
* Critics say food safety is endangered by new program
* Government says poultry safety is a priority
* As many as 800 government inspectors to be cut
By Carey Gillam
April 12 (Reuters) - A plan to speed up processing lines at U.S. chicken and turkey plants while cutting the ranks of government inspectors at the plants is prompting a backlash from consumer groups and food safety advocates who say unsafe poultry will go undetected.
Several groups have demanded the U.S. Department of Agriculture revamp the program, which the government calls the "modernization of poultry slaughter inspection" act, and this week one launched an online petition to try to overturn the plan.
Critics have until April 26 to voice their concerns as part of a required public comment period before the plan can be approved.
Their primary fear is that if plants speed up their processing and cut back on government inspectors, poultry feces and signs of disease on the birds are more likely to go undetected before the poultry is processed into food products.
"It is politics versus practice," said Amanda Hitt, a director at the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a nonprofit group that supports whistleblowers on corporate and government actions. GAP started an online petition drive Monday to lobby USDA to reject the new rule.
"You have all these things streaming by - scabs, sores, tumors, feathers, postules, things that before never would have made it to the grocery store," Hitt said. "Everything is designed to keep meat cheap and affordable. But it is unfair to the U.S. consumer."
Government officials said poultry will actually be safer in the new system, the first major overhaul of poultry inspection in 50 years.
"It is not necessarily what you see on birds, it is often what you don't see," said Dirk Fillpot, a spokesman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) arm of the USDA.
Government inspectors will spend more time focused on microbiological testing and other food safety activities, he said. The current system requires government inspectors to spend time looking for defects that are quality related but not necessarily safety related, he said.
"By performing more offline inspection activities... we would expect to see a reduction in illnesses perhaps up to 5,200 per year," said Fillpot.
USDA unveiled the program in January as it works to cut $150 million from its annual budget. The program will trim as many as 800 inspectors out of a total of about 2,000, and USDA estimated it could save $90 million over a three-year period.
Under the new method, chicken plants would be able to run line speeds of up to 175 birds per minute, up from the current maximum of 140 birds per minute. Turkey line speeds would rise to 55 birds per minutes from 51.
Plant operators would be responsible for sorting animal carcasses themselves, determining which carcasses to discard or trim. Plants would be required to develop procedures to make sure poultry that could be dangerous for human consumption does not make it into the "chiller," according to Mary Porretta, a policy analyst within the USDA. The chiller is where carcasses are washed in chemical disinfectants.
There would be a government inspector at the end of the line to inspect carcasses. Inspectors also would spend more time evaluating the plant's bacteria-testing and other safety programs.
But some inspectors and former inspectors for USDA have said the new process, which has been in place at 20 plants on a test basis since 1998, is a recipe for food safety problems.
"This is a program that needs to be strengthened not weakened," said Phyllis McKelvey, who retired two years ago as a long-time government inspector at an Alabama poultry plant. "Most parents trust chicken nuggets. It could be full of fecal, it could be full of anything because we are not watching it. We need more inspectors, not less."
Other inspectors have given affadavits to the GAP, with their identities redacted, offering similar warnings. One inspector, in an affadavit provided by GAP, said fecal matter is often found inside a bird carcass and under the new proposal federal inspectors are not given the opportunity to see the front or the inside of the birds on a production line.
The inspector said at the increased rate of up to 175 birds per minute on the processing line under the new program it is "difficult if not impossible to spot defects."
Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, is working to kill the proposed inspection changes, and this week the United Food and Commercial Workers union also voiced its opposition to what it called a "reckless" new rule.
Roughly 175 plants that slaughter young chickens and turkeys would be affected by the proposal, according to USDA.
Tyson Foods Inc., one of the world's largest poultry companies, has been piloting the plan at two of its poultry plants and said so far it is pleased with the "effectiveness and efficiencies of the streamlined USDA inspection system."
"Given limited government resources, we believe consumers are best served by the most efficient use of government oversight," said Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson.