By Carey Gillam
Sept 4 U.S. agriculture regulators pushing to
overhaul food safety inspections at poultry slaughterhouses have
not thoroughly evaluated several pilot projects, which critics
have said could jeopardize food safety, according to a report
released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office on
The GAO report also said the U.S. Department of Agriculture
failed to disclose accurate information about the data the
department used to promote what it calls "modernization" changes
at the plants.
Meat and poultry products contaminated with dangerous
pathogens such as salmonella cause many food borne illnesses,
and the government plan, which includes speeding up processing
lines while cutting back on the number of government inspectors,
has sparked significant opposition.
If the government is to actually improve poultry inspection,
"the Obama Administration needs to get the legal authority from
Congress to hold companies accountable for putting contaminated
food into commerce, not deregulate inspection," said Wenonah
Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement
issued on Wednesday. Food & Water Watch has been a leading
critic of the government plans.
But the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, or FSIS, said
there are several inaccuracies contained in the GAO report. It
added that the findings miss the main objective of the
government effort, which is to reduce overlapping inspections by
plant employees and government inspectors and allow government
inspectors to focus on areas of greatest risk to food safety.
CHICKENS, TURKEYS AND HOGS
The USDA has been overseeing a pilot project at slaughter
plants for young chickens, turkeys and hogs since 1998 with a
goal of reducing the number of federal inspectors to save
taxpayer money while still strengthening the inspection of
carcasses for food safety concerns.
As of July, 29 plants were participating - 19 chicken
slaughter plants; 5 turkey plants and 5 hog plants.
In 2011, the USDA said operation of the pilot project at 20
young chicken plants showed that the streamlined inspection
program would ensure equivalent, if not better, levels of food
safety and quality than currently provided at plants not in the
pilot project. In early 2012, the USDA published a proposed rule
that would extend the pilot program for poultry to all U.S.
But the GAO report said it found that the USDA relied on
limited snapshots of data from two two-year periods, rather than
from the duration of the entire pilot project. In addition, the
USDA did not complete any evaluation for the pilot projects at
five young turkey plants, yet when it published a proposed rule
that included an optional new inspection system for both chicken
and turkey plants, the USDA stated that it was relying on
experience with both chicken and turkey plants.
The USDA is similarly limiting its evaluation of data from
hog plants as it prepares a rule to govern inspections at those
slaughterhouses, the GAO said.
The GAO report was requested by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a
Democrat from New York, after several food and environmental
groups expressed concerns about the pilot programs.
The senator sent a letter on Wednesday to the Office of
Management and Budget urging it to ensure that the new rule for
modifying poultry inspection does not go forward "until further
action is taken to protect food safety." The letter was made
available to Reuters by Gillibrand's office.
The GAO report, Sen. Gillibrand said, shows that the FSIS'
evaluation of the pilot program is "deeply flawed" and "not
formulated on a strong scientific basis."
Under the USDA proposal to expand the pilot projects, plants
could dramatically speed up processing lines and replace many
USDA inspectors with poultry company employees. For decades,
government poultry inspectors have been stationed along
processing lines to identify contaminated and diseased
Critics fear that when 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.
But government officials have said poultry will actually be
safer in the new system, which would be the first major overhaul
of poultry inspection in 50 years. Proponents say the current
system requires government inspectors to spend time looking for
defects that are quality related but not necessarily safety
related. The new system would allow government inspectors to
spend more time focused on microbiological testing and other
food safety activities, the proponents say.
In the new system, plant operators would be responsible for
sorting animal carcasses themselves and would be required to
develop procedures to make sure poultry that could be dangerous
for human consumption is identified. A USDA inspector would
remain at the end of each slaughter line at each poultry plant
and at three fixed locations on the slaughter line at each hog
plant to conduct a carcass-by-carcass inspection after plant
personnel have completed sorting.
Tyson Foods Inc., one of the world's largest poultry
companies, has been piloting the plan at some of its poultry
plants and has been a supporter of the changes.