As early as next week, the government will end debate on the USDA’s modernization proposal to allow companies that produce chicken for sale to perform meat-safety inspections.
For the last twelve years, the USDA has been running pilot programs throughout the US in twenty poultry plants and claims, despite projected savings of $85 million over three years from inspection layoffs, that the plan is not about cost-cutting, but elevating food safety. Poultry producers expect to save more than $250 million a year because they will be be allowed to speed up their processing line, almost doubling production from 90 birds per minute to 175. Moreover, under the new proposal, production lines will have only one USDA inspector at the end of the line. Currently, traditional poultry lines have up to three USDA inspectors.
Whistleblower inspectors opposed to the new rule contend that companies cannot be trusted to adequately perform safety inspection duties. They argue that companies regularly pressure employees not to stop or slow down the line, making thorough inspection for tumors, contaminants, and evidence of disease nearly impossible to spot.
According to OMB Watch, a government accountability newsletter, existing USDA cutbacks coincide with a sizeable increase in salmonella outbreaks. 2010 was a record year for salmonella outbreaks and 2011 saw the most recalls of meat, eggs, and poultry in a decade. The USA claims to plan increasing the number of scientific tests to look for microbiotic disease invisible to the human eyes of inspectors, yet they have not been able to furnish data that show an increase in lab testing during the pilot program.
Watchdog groups insist that both increased testing and government inspection is necessary to lower salmonella and other disease outbreaks from poultry. On their website, The National Chicken Council states that while “plant employees would have an expanded role in inspecting carcasses,” USDA inspectors will still be present in the plant. They also claim to be “confident that modernizing the poultry inspection system will enable us to build on our success in providing delicious, safe and wholesome food to our customers.”
With chicken surpassing beef and pork in sales and the average American consuming 84 pounds of chicken a year, let’s hope that’s the case. A sure and healthier bet, however, is to give up eating it altogether.
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