By DAVID KNOWLES
First it was pink slime. Now, critics are crying fowl over changes in the poultry industry that they fear could affect the safety of the chicken and turkey Americans eat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to eliminate 800 poultry inspector positions and allow poultry companies to markedly increase line speeds at factories where bird carcasses are processed. The USDA estimates the faster line speeds will result in an annual windfall of $257 million for the industry.
Officials insist that food safety will not suffer.
“One thing I want to be crystal clear about is that we are not turning over the keys, as far as food safety goes, to industry,” Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen told The Daily.
The USDA said its soon-to-be-implemented Inspection Models Project will save taxpayers $93 million over three years and enrich business, and it has been proven to improve food safety. But the agency’s own inspectors tell a different story.
One unidentified USDA inspector gave a sworn affidavit filed by the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower organization, about conditions at plants where the new program has been tested.
“The bird carcasses fly by at between 165-175 birds per minute. It is difficult, if not impossible, to spot defects at that rate,” the inspector said.
Another whistle-blower with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, whose identity was also withheld, portrayed the consequences of replacing trained inspectors with unlicensed workers hired by poultry companies, a provision allowed under the new plan.
“In my plant, some of the sorters really try to look at all of the birds,” the whistle-blower wrote. “Others, though, seem to not care or have given up doing their job. As a result, I believe that unsafe and unwholesome birds will be more likely likely to reach consumers.”
And while there are fewer trained federal inspectors surveying carcasses for defects, line speeds during the pilot program have risen from 72-90 birds per minute to as high as 200 birds per minute.
The controversy comes as the USDA is still reeling from a consumer revolt over the use of “pink slime,” or lean finely textured beef — beef scraps and connective tissue treated with ammonia to kill bacteria.
The USDA embarked on the poultry pilot program, known by the acronym HIMP (for hazard analysis and critical control points-based Inspection Models Project), in 1998 at 25 factories nationwide. Under the new guidelines, Food Safety and Inspection Service personnel in poultry factories were shifted away from inspecting birds on the production line for visible defects. Instead, they were to concentrate on scrutinizing microbial problems and enforcing individual companies’ mandated safety plans.
“The way we have been doing poultry inspection has remained the same for 60 years,” said Hagen. “It’s 2012 and we have a much better understanding of what makes food unsafe. We know now what we should be focusing on.”
She said the USDA’s requirements on industry safety are “much stricter than in the past,” and noted companies must prove their safety plans “work in practice.”
Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food & Water Report, a nonprofit group opposed to the new standards, has asked the USDA to extend its public comment period on the HIMP program. He said he has presented the agency with more than 8,000 comments critical of the changes.
“Pink slime was just the tip of the iceberg,” Corbo told The Daily. “With lines moving this fast, there’s no way in hell the one inspector can visibly detect this stuff, which is a big reason why they’re encouraging these companies to use chemicals.”
Using Freedom of Information Act requests, Food & Water Report analyzed 5,000 USDA documents that it said show widespread problems with the HIMP measures, including obvious cases of fecal contamination that made it past the company workers hired to replace inspectors.
“The government is playing verification role instead of an inspection role,” Corbo said.
Hagen counters that documents cited by Food & Water Report actually show HIMP facilities have lower levels of salmonella and fecal contamination than factories using the old system.
“These plants are performing better and the data show lower rates of contamination,” she said.
Critics say increasing line speeds show that the new regulations are, in no small part, fueled by political donations.
“The Obama administration is running scared and can’t seem to stand up for what’s right,” Michele Simon, author of the book “Appetite for Profit.” “But many of these policies date back to past administrations.”
The HIMP pilot program began during President Clinton’s administration, and the Clarksville, Ark., factory of the former president’s biggest political donor, Tyson Foods, was selected to be one of the 25 companies participating. USDA itself estimates that the increased line speeds will result in an annual windfall of $257 million for the poultry industry.
Bill Marler, a prominent lawyer who represents victims of food-borne illnesses, says that while he respects Hagen and the professionals at the USDA, he sees an inherent flaw in the logic of relying on companies to do what’s right in terms of protecting the public from pathogens.
“There are some regulators who really do believe that companies should do what’s in their own self-interest — say, don’t poison customers,” Marler said. “But the underlying assumption of [hazard analysis and critical control points] is incorrect. Most of the poultry companies will never get caught when food-borne illnesses occur, so where’s their incentive to police safety?