People serving turkey this week for Thanksgiving dinner should know what’s happening with U.S. poultry. While we continue to challenge Hormel and its participation in USDA’s high-speed pork inspection pilot program, the agency’s corresponding program for poultry plants has already gone into effect (despite hundreds of thousands of petitioners and the agency’s own inspectors opposing the plan).
Some of the nation’s worst offenders for food safety problems are turkey plants, which are now converting their facilities to the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS). This not only increases the processing speed (one turkey per second!) but also greatly reduces government oversight. This doesn’t look good for consumers, especially during the holiday season.
Whistleblowers have warned GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign that government food safety inspectors are routinely discouraged from stopping the lines at poultry plants – both traditional and NPIS high-speed plants. But under NPIS, the plants have even more autonomy and freedom from regulation. There are fewer inspectors at each plant and many of their duties have been handed over to the industry plant workers, who face an even stronger threat of retaliation for speaking up because they have no adequate legal protections. That means fewer voices to blow the whistle when a serious threat to food safety occurs.
What’s most alarming is that many of the turkey plants that have signed up to join the NPIS system are well known food safety offenders. A prime example is Cargill’s plant in Springdale, Arkansas, which was at the center of one of the largest poultry recalls in history. The plant recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey products in 2011 that were linked to 136 cases of illness (by antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg) across 34 states.
Cargill not only had contamination problems, but it also may have silenced a potential whistleblower. At the bottom of an NPR article about the recall, one commenter asserted that Cargill had previously complained when an inspector slowed down the lines to check for contamination, resulting in the inspector’s prompt removal from her position. Then “it was back to business as usual.” This claim is consistent with how many inspectors have described their experiences at other poultry plants.
Instead of rewarding Cargill and other bad actors with even less oversight, we should be empowering food truth-tellers who can prevent nationwide recalls by catching a problem before it gets out of hand. You shouldn’t have to wonder about the safety of your family meal this week or any other week of the year. Let’s show some gratitude for brave poultry industry whistleblowers this Thanksgiving!
Sarah Damian is Communications Manager for the Food Integrity Campaign, a program of the Government Accountability Project – the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.