Protecting Food. Empowering Whistleblowers.

Food Integrity Campaign Blog

Grist: Replacing poultry inspectors with factory workers might not be greatest idea, says GAO

September 6, 2013

By John Upton

Let’s hope this chicken was inspected by a government worker.

Who would you rather have check factory chickens for signs of illness and smears of crap — a USDA inspector or a factory employee?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has long stationed its own inspectors along factory lines at poultry plants. But now it’s preparing to reassign those workers to other tasks and allow the agricultural companies to inspect their own birds along processing lines, which would help speed up business operations.

Food-safety groups are raising alarms about the proposed shift, and a new government report indicates that they might well have reason to be concerned.

The USDA’s draft poultry-inspection rules are based on the results of pilot projects in which private-industry inspections were shown to be safe, the department says. But the new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says the USDA lacks the data needed to make such claims. The GAO report points out that the department “has not thoroughly evaluated the performance of each of the pilot projects over time even though the agency stated it would do so when it announced the pilot projects,” and at least in one case it used “snapshots of data” from limited periods of time instead of data from the whole period of the pilot project.

USDA poultry inspectors are also opposed to the changes, The New York Times reports:

In affidavits given to the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit legal assistance group for whistle-blowers, several inspectors who work at plants where the pilot program is in place said the main problem was that they were removed from positions on the assembly line and put at the end of the line, which made it impossible for them to spot diseased birds.

The inspectors, whose names were redacted, said they had observed numerous instances of poultry plant employees allowing birds contaminated with fecal matter or other substances to pass. And even when the employees try to remove diseased birds, they face reprimands, the inspectors said.

Any chance this will all be sorted out before Thanksgiving?