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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

Atlanta Journal-Constitution – Playing Chicken on Food Safety?

August 5, 2013

by Tim Eberly

One-third of a second.

That’s how long a federal inspector will have to examine slaughtered chickens for contaminants and disease under new rules proposed by the federal government.

The proposal would speed up production lines as much as 25 percent. It also would pull most federal inspectors off the lines and replace them with plant workers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says its proposal is a win-win-win that modernizes food inspection while saving money for taxpayers and the poultry industry.

The nation’s most recognized food safety and consumer groups, however, say the plan would leave gaping holes in oversight that will endanger the nation’s food supply, not to mention create a conflict of interest for poultry plants. They warn that Americans, who eat about 80 pounds of poultry a year, will be at greater risk of getting a side serving of fecal contamination or cancerous tumors with their chicken.

“I went out and bought a food processor so we could make more vegetarian meals,” said Felicia Nestor, a food safety advocate and a consultant with the Government Accountability Project. “If the changes go into effect, my husband and I will no longer buy chicken.”

The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees poultry plants, believes the changes would “ensure and even enhance the safety of the poultry supply by focusing our inspectors’ efforts on activities more directly tied to improving food safety,” FSIS spokesman Dirk Fillpot said in a statement.

The agency says it wants inspectors to focus on issues that pose the greatest health risks to the public.

Georgia produces more chickens for meat consumption — 1.3 billion a year — than any other state, so the USDA’s proposed changes are critically important here. The agency has not said when it will make its final decision on the proposal. The new system would be voluntary, though FSIS expects all but the smallest poultry plants to opt in. Advocates say that’s because the other option would prohibit those plants from remaining competitive in the industry. The biggest changes would:

– Use workers in chicken and turkey plants to replace all but one federal inspector on the conveyor belt, where bad birds are removed from the production line. (Currently, chicken plants have as many as four federal inspectors on their lines.)

– Let those plants decide how much training their workers receive in identifying diseased or defected birds.

– Enable plants to speed up their slaughter lines so that the sole federal inspector, stationed at the end of the line, would be required to view up to 175 birds per minute. The maximum speed now is 140 per minute, but that workload is divided among four inspectors so that it averages out at 35 per minute for each inspector.

– Let poultry plants decide what dangerous bacteria they test carcasses for and how often they test, and no longer require plants to test for E. coli.

The government says the changes will save taxpayers more than $90 million over three years. But the big winner will be the poultry industry, which will save at least $256 million a year in production costs, the USDA has projected.

But at least one Georgia poultry plant owner isn’t sold on the concept. Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, said he likes having an unbiased third party closely examining each chicken that comes through his production line.

“I don’t want to be the fox that’s guarding the henhouse,” said Harris, whose farm is about 75 miles south of Columbus. Harris also raises grass-fed cattle and sheep and is one of the few operations that handles its own slaughter on-site.

How it works now

Georgia’s largest poultry plants are capable of slaughtering and processing hundreds of thousands of chickens in a day. On the production line, chickens are hung upside down by their feet in shackles, one next to another, and subjected to an electric shock that stuns them into unconsciousness. A razor-sharp blade then cuts the animals’ jugular vein; other devices remove their feathers, heads, feet and internal organs.

As the chickens move down the line, as many as four federal inspectors are stationed to examine them. The line is timed so that birds pass in front of an inspector for about two seconds. The inspectors handle each carcass and peer inside its chest cavity, searching for defects such as disease, infection and fecal contamination; he or she also looks at the bird’s internal organs for signs of disease. The inspector pulls the chicken off the line if any of those conditions is present.

A few times a month, other inspectors take small samples of birds and mail them to federal labs, where they are tested for bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter.

The Food Safety Inspection Service says the new system would require poultry plants to take more responsibility for weeding out birds with diseases, infections and defects. These conditions include an infection of the blood called septicemia, which discolors the bird, and an infection called “inflammatory process,” which can cause a hard yellow scab to form under a chicken’s skin. Currently federal inspectors pull these birds off the line when they spot them; the new rules would largely leave that to plant employees.

In redirecting its inspectors from production lines, FSIS says, more inspectors will be freed up to focus on issues that affect public health, such as salmonella and campylobacter. Yet, under the proposed system, FSIS would not increase testing for those pathogens.

Advocates say they’re not opposed to modernizing poultry inspection and requiring plants to take more ownership of their product. They say, however, that the agency’s proposal goes far beyond that, giving too much control and freedom to poultry plants while also relaxing the government’s oversight.

In 1999, FSIS created a pilot program that allowed 20 chicken plants and five turkey plants to play by a different set of rules. They could run their slaughter lines at faster speeds. They swapped most government inspectors on the lines with their own plant workers. Two plants in that pilot program are in Georgia, one in Gainesville, one in Claxton.

The program is the foundation for the proposed changes. And FSIS documents portray it as an overwhelming success. The agency says the rates of fecal contamination — a major vehicle for spreading bacteria — are lower in the pilot plants. The agency also says the rates of salmonella compare favorably.

Opponents of the proposal say FSIS is distorting the facts on both issues. They cite an audit by the Government Accountability Office in December 2001, which concluded that results from the program would be “unreliable.”

The audit also noted that citations for fecal contamination skyrocketed in poultry plants’ first year in the pilot program.

Critics say FSIS responded by gaming the system. They say the agency allowed the pilot plants to rearrange the production line in a way that largely prevented inspectors from writing citations for fecal contamination.

As a result, the critics say, the citations plummeted. The government says its fecal contamination rates in pilot plants are about half those of other plants’.

“So all those [citations] that were getting written up early on under the [pilot] program because inspectors were finding a lot of fecal, all of a sudden, they all go away,” Nestor said. She is the food-safety consultant to the Government Accountability Project, a Washington group that supports government and corporate whistleblowers.

Asked for a response, FSIS did not address the alleged connection between the citations and the relocation of the employee stations. The agency would not agree to an interview with the AJC for this article but answered some of the newspaper’s questions by email.

Food safety advocates also say that the agency’s statistics on salmonella rates in pilot plants are unimpressive.

Salmonella rates were actually lower in 2009 and 2010 in nonpilot comparison plants than the pilot plants, according to a 2011 evaluation of the pilot program.

‘Going by in a blur’

As birds whiz past them at a rate of three per second, federal inspectors say, it’s impossible to properly inspect all of them.

“There’s no humanly way you can keep up,” said inspector and union official Stan Painter, who works at a pilot plant in Crossville, Ala., that uses the faster line speeds. “They’re going by in a blur.”

FSIS says it’s a reasonable speed, in part because there won’t be as much for the federal inspector to look for. In the new system, plant workers will have already sorted most of the birds with defects and disease.

“Therefore, FSIS inspectors at [pilot plants] are able to inspect carcasses at these line speeds,” according to the agency. It added that inspectors would still have the power to stop or slow the lines if large numbers of birds with defects prevented them from performing proper inspections.

Where federal inspectors now examine each bird’s chest cavity — a frequent hiding place for fecal contamination — they won’t do so under the new system. “Such hand contact will be infrequent,” FSIS says.

The new rules would still dictate that inspectors write citations when they find fecal contamination, Nestor said, “but they’re just not letting inspectors look for fecal.”

For defects that haven’t been proven to harm people, FSIS will let chicken plants set their own standards for weeding them out, a change that inspectors and advocates say will result in more undesirable discoveries in packages.

When it comes to food safety, though, controlling foodborne bacteria is paramount.

Plants are currently required to test a sample of carcasses for E. coli. The new regulation would let them test for the bacteria of their choice but does not set any minimum requirements for how often to test.

“All they’ve done so far is remove regulations,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. “They haven’t replaced them with better standards.”

What FSIS should do, advocates say, is require all plants to test for the same bacteria, so the agency could track results and identify poor performers.

Reassurance from industry

If plants are largely responsible for removing diseased and unwholesome birds from production, the question is: Will they do it?

The industry says yes.

“If there’s any defects on those birds at all, they’re coming off the line,” said Ashley Peterson, vice president of science and technology for the National Chicken Council.

Others fear the worst.

David Barrett, a federal inspector assigned to poultry plants in Gainesville, worked in the industry as a young man. He says he was told to do things he knew were wrong, such as picking up contaminated birds off the floor and putting them back into production. His desire to right those wrongs led him to become an inspector.

Barrett, stressing that he is speaking on his own behalf and not for his agency, said he believes plant workers will be pressured to keep as many birds as possible in production.

“They don’t like it when we slow the lines down,” Barrett said of plant supervisors. “You think they’re going to allow their own people to do it?”

Inspectors and advocates also say it’s a mistake not to require training for poultry workers on how to identify diseased or infected birds.

“I have a problem with that,” said Brian Lubke, also a federal inspector in Gainesville speaking on his own behalf. “Do these people know what they’re looking for?”

The government has had plenty of time to decide whether to require training for plant employees; the 2001 audit recommended it to ensure “that plant personnel are as competent as federal inspectors.”

The agency hasn’t heeded the advice. “It would [be] appropriate for the establishment to determine the type of training its employees need,” FSIS says.

Other countries with similar inspection programs keep their meat or poultry plants on a shorter leash:

– In New Zealand, the USDA requires that company workers receive training equivalent to that of a U.S. federal inspector — a much higher standard than it is proposing here — if the plant exports meat to the U.S.

– Employees at Australian plants that export meat must undergo about 500 hours of training to inspect meat.

– In Canada, the government trains plant workers for two months before they may inspect poultry.

‘Phoning it in’

Advocates say FSIS should reexamine its plan.

Some criticized the agency for not consulting with its own advisory committee before announcing its plans. The committee directly advises Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“I certainly am irritated and annoyed,” said Patricia Buck, a member of the National Advisory Committee on Meat & Poultry Inspection. “It should not happen this way again.”

After members complained, the agency organized a two-hour phone conference call with the committee, which usually meets in person and for longer stretches. They also were not permitted to ask questions.

“It was phoning it in — the perfect use of that phrase,” said committee member Sarah Klein, an attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

At least one elected official wants FSIS to put the brakes on its proposal.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, asked GAO to conduct another audit of FSIS’s pilot program. The agency said it will do so soon. She then sent a letter to Vilsack, asking him to delay the changes.

“I do not believe USDA should yield inspection responsibilities to plant personnel that have an inherent conflict of interest unless [the pilot program] can be independently verified to be safe and effective,” Gillibrand wrote.

Vilsack wrote back to Gillibrand in a letter filled with FSIS’s talking points on the issue. But more notable is what’s missing: Vilsack doesn’t address the senator’s request.

Reading between the lines, advocates say, that doesn’t spell good news.

10 years of salmonella outbreaks

Georgia experienced more than 300 outbreaks of salmonella poisoning between 2000 and 2010. Some of the outbreaks occurred in multiple states, so the numbers of total cases, hospitalizations and deaths did not all occur here.

Total outbreaks in Georgia: 306

Total cases: 13,346

Hospitalizations: 1,265

Deaths: 26

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

5 years of individual cases

Individual cases of salmonella poisoning in Georgia increased by 37 percent from 2007 to 2010 before dipping slightly in 2011. Tainted chicken is the most common source of salmonella bacteria, but it is far from the only source. These numbers reflect total cases from all sources. Cases of campylobacter infection, also often traced to poultry, were roughly the same in 2007 and 2011, with some fluctuation in between.

Samonella infections in Georgia

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011

2,047 2,285 2,375 2,806 2,666

Campylobactor infections in Georgia

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011

688 683 740 598 697

Source: Georgia Department of Public Health