The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been exploring the modernization of its poultry inspection system for two decades, and a pilot program including 20 chicken plants has been studied, debated and reviewed in depth to assure its effectiveness since 1999.
The proposed Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule will better protect the public from foodborne illnesses by reducing reliance on old-fashioned visual and sensory inspection and moving to prevention-oriented inspection systems based on actual risk to consumers. Studies by the National Academy of Sciences, the General Accounting Office and the USDA have established the need to modernize the poultry inspection program.
Disagreement about the allocation of resources in this area and others has been a long-running battle between USDA and the inspectors union, and this rule has gotten caught in the crossfire. With it has come misinformation, and I would like to take this opportunity to separate fact from fiction:
Fiction: The rule would “privatize” poultry inspection.
Fact: The USDA will remain in its oversight role, and USDA inspectors will still be in every plant, looking at each carcass to ensure the safety of chicken products and providing them with the USDA seal of approval for wholesomeness.
Fiction: Food safety would be compromised.
Fact: USDA inspectors would be repositioned on inspection lines to play a greater role in the prevention of foodborne pathogens on chicken carcasses. These efforts will help to better ensure the vigorous testing and other protocols that companies have in place are working properly to prevent bacterial contamination.
Since the USDA began ranking plants by category of performance in 2008, the 20 plants participating in the 13-year pilot program have nearly always been in the best-performing category.
Fiction: Increasing line speeds is as easy as flipping a light switch.
Fact: Extensive time, effort and investment would be required to implement a new inspection system. Substantial capital investment will be required to make the necessary changes within each poultry processing facility—from equipment to employees—that chooses to implement the new system; production adjustments would only be made when the market dictates.
Fiction: Worker safety would be compromised because of increased line speeds.
Fact: A recent survey of broiler establishments participating in the pilot program show—for both Total Recordable Injury Rates and Days Away/Restricted or Transfer Rates—that these plants are as safe for workers as plants that operate under traditional inspection.
It is the goal and primary focus of the chicken industry and the USDA alike to provide consumers with safe, high quality and wholesome chicken. The safety of our products and the safety of our workers are the top priorities for the industry. The proposed rule does not change these goals.