A coalition of 23 consumer, labor, public health, and civil rights groups have sent a letter to Secretary Tom Vilsack. They are urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to withdraw its proposal that increases poultry processing line speeds and removes hundreds of federal inspectors from poultry processing plants. That proposal, called HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) has been criticized by many consumer groups.
The letter states that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) developed the proposal with limited input and did not consult with its inspection advisory committee. The agency did also not hold public meetings on this issue, unlike previous agency proposals. The coalition has several concerns with this proposal.
Line speed increases are a concern, since they will “likely exacerbate food safety and worker safety issues,” according to the letter. Current line speeds are 35 birds per minute per inspector. The proposed new number is 175 chicken carcasses per minute, with only a single inspector on the slaughter line. That would give that lone inspector 1/3 of a second to examine each carcass for food safety issues. In addition, that line speed will most likely increase the “unacceptably high levels of injuries in the poultry processing industry.” OSHA was not consulted in the development of this proposal.
The groups also claim that the proposed rule will not yield the benefits claimed. According to data from the CDC, there has been no significant progress reducing illnesses from Salmonella and Campylobacter on poultry since 1999. The USDA itself admits to an “ambiguous” impact on reducing Campylobacter infections. HIMP will also not require plants to test for those two pathogens, but will let each plant design its own testing plan.
The proposal will also increase the rates of “defects” on birds, including blisters, bruises, scabs, feathers, bile, ingesta, and poultry-specific diseases. The facility would make subjective decisions on the appropriate level of these defects in the birds it processes.
Finally, the proposal will not require plant employees to be trained on the new rules. Training requirements are essential to assure that sorting procedures are properly performed. USDA whistleblowers have commented that plant workers with insufficient training often overlook things, and employers have a vested interest in processing as many birds as possible, according to Chris Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America.
The letter is signed by the AFL-CIO, American Federation of Government Employees, Center for Food Safety, Consumer Federation of America, Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, Food & Water Watch, Center for Science in the Public Interest, STOP Foodborne Illness, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Individuals who signed the letter include Barbara Frey, Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Celeste Monforton of George Washington University, and Sidney Shapiro, University Chair in Law at Wake Forest University.