By JERRY HAGSTROM
A coalition of consumer groups has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of Management and Budget to release the latest version of a rule to change poultry inspection and open a new comment period.
Unconfirmed reports have circulated that USDA pulled back on a proposal to increase the speed at which chickens whizz past inspectors after a meeting with the National Council of La Raza, which speaks for the Hispanic workers employed in the plants.
The rule, promulgated by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, would shift some poultry inspection responsibilities from federally employed inspectors to employees of the poultry companies, theoretically freeing the federal employees to perform other tasks. The original version of the rule also shifted the allowed line speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute.
Members of the Safe Food Coalition that signed the letter urging that the rule be made public and open to comment include: Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Food & Water Watch, Government Accountability Project, National Consumers League, and STOP Foodborne Illness.
Unions and consumer groups have opposed the rule on food safety and worker safety grounds, but FSIS has proceeded with it. During the past year, the National Council of La Raza has gotten involved in the issue, and a consumer activist told Agweek several months ago that the Obama administration appeared more responsive to that group.
After a report in Politico that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had met with La Raza President Janet Murguía about the issue and then made the change to the line speed, a USDA spokesman confirmed that Vilsack had a conversation with La Raza officials, but declined to reveal any changes that had been made to the rule.
On July 16, the Safe Food Coalition sent Vilsack and OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Howard Shelanski a letter urging the revised rule be released and a comment period be established.
“Considering the importance of this rule, the public should be given an opportunity to comment on the changes made to the proposal before the rule is finalized,” the letter said.
The coalition cited the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to revise and re-publish the Food Safety Modernization Act rule as a precedent to release the rule and establish another comment period.
Last September, the groups urged USDA to withdraw the rule for a variety of reasons. The consumer groups say food safety issues remain, even if the speed with which the birds move past inspectors will not be increased as much.
But Tony Corbo of Food and Water Watch said if USDA agreed to leave the speed at the current 140 birds per minute, it would be “a hollow victory” for Hispanic workers and others on the lines.
“The one study that NIOSH [the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] did of poultry workers in South Carolina showed 40 percent of the poultry workers already exhibited signs of carpel tunnel syndrome when the line was running at 140 birds per minute,” Corbo said.
Carol Tucker-Foreman, a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, said that without seeing the rule it is impossible to know “if the efforts expended by representatives of people who work in poultry plants, only a small percentage of whom are USDA employees, have borne fruit or whether the changes will be meaningless.”
“It does seem to me that for the first time in history, USDA has been made aware of the fact that only a small percentage of the people who work in industry plants are federal inspectors,” Tucker-Foreman said.
“By far the greatest number of people affected are employees of the inspected plants, the people doing the work USDA employees inspect,” she said.
In June, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents the plant workers, called on Congress to support an amendment introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., that would stop further action on the rule. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the inspectors, has urged its members to write Congress to demand that FSIS rescind the poultry rule.
FSIS and the National Chicken Council note that the HIMP model has been used as a pilot project in poultry plants for years.
The NCC, which praised USDA for forwarding the rule to OMB, had no comment on the speculation that the line speeds in the original proposal had been altered.