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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

President Trump’s USDA Loosens Rules for Poultry Plants: Here’s What They’re Not Telling You

Food Integrity Campaign | October 5, 2018

The Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) has worked for years to protect whistleblowers who bravely speak out about unsafe conditions in poultry plants. The strongest voices are the federal meat inspectors employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to keep our food supply safe. Several inspectors have told FIC that the meat industry wants to slaughter and process chickens faster in order to increase profits while simultaneously ignoring risks to animal welfare, worker safety, and consumer health.

Rather than heed the warning of its own employees, the USDA recently decided to side with the poultry industry. On September 28, the USDA released new guidelines that would allow poultry plants to increase line speeds to processing as many as 175 birds per minute if the plants meet certain guidelines. The National Chicken Council had previously petitioned USDA to waive line speed limits altogether, so, in the eyes of USDA, their offer is a compromise.

Whistleblowing inspectors have told FIC that the new line speeds put consumers in danger by increasing the risk of foodborne pathogens contaminating poultry. In pilot plants allowed to test out the faster line speeds, inspectors reported they could not adequately inspect the poultry carcasses for signs of illness and fecal contamination. Even worse, USDA officials have told the inspectors to keep quiet about contamination they would usually report.

The inspectors who reached out to FIC used to feel pride in their work protecting consumers. Here’s how some inspectors describe current conditions:

  • “It’s difficult if not impossible to inspect defects at this rate. It’s very frustrating for me to be unable to examine the birds closely for problems. I feel like I am there to protect the consumer and make sure that the product that is produced is something my family would eat.” (Affidavit 2)
  • “I know the kinds of unwholesome, mutilated, and diseased chickens that are processed and shipped out for sale, and I feel it is important to share this information with consumers and taxpayers.” (Affidavit 6)
  • “We have very limited authority to remove carcasses for condemnation and no authority for trimming specific carcasses that we feel need to be trimmed…I’ve sometimes found four or five birds with fecal contamination within a timeframe of fifteen minutes and still cannot issue a Non-compliance Report to the plant.” (Affidavit 1)
  • “It was almost like [the USDA’s district office] was more concerned with keep[ing] the poultry plants happy at any cost, rather than holding them to a strict standard.” (Affadavit 2)

Increased line speeds aren’t just bad for consumers; they’re bad for workers too. Poultry plant workers, as well as inspectors, are already at risk for severe injuries, chronic pain disorders, and unsafe chemical exposures. Increasing the line speeds increases the risks to the workers who produce our food every day in an already dangerous industry.

We can’t let the USDA’s actions go unchallenged. We urge the USDA and the Trump administration to heed the warnings of its own employees and acknowledge the food safety risks in its proposed inspection system.