On March 17, 68 U.S. Congress members signed a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to abandon plans to implement a new set of regulations that would increase the speed of lines in poultry processing plants.

"While we strongly support modernizing our food safety system and making it more efficient, modernization should not occur at the expense of public health, worker safety, or animal welfare," the letter said. "We therefore harbor serious concerns over what we believe are the [agency's] inadequate considerations to date of these issues in promulgating this rule." 

The lawmakers argue that plans to remove some Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors who examine chickens for defects off the production line in poultry plants would leave much of the inspection duties to companies themselves, while also allowing the industry to speed up production lines, would threaten the safety of workers and the food supply. 

The proposal, supported by industry groups including National Chicken Council (NCC), is intended to modernize the inspection process by allowing the remaining inspectors to focus instead on unseen dangers such as bacteria. To do so, a pilot program already in place would be expanded, phasing out an estimated 800 inspection jobs at a savings of nearly $95 million over three years, according to the department.

"So there's been an aggressive effort focused on this," Vilsack said. "The savings that's in this budget is a result of a proposal to modernize poultry inspection, which has not really changed much in the last 60 years. I think we know a lot more about where pathogens attach, what pathogens are most of concern, and how we might be able to improve the inspection process, while at the same time ... saving money."

Current rules require a federal inspector for every 35 birds that cross the slaughter line each minute; the total number of birds allowed to pass through is capped at 140 per minute, requiring four federal inspectors. The draft regulations would require one federal inspector on the line, with other inspection responsibilities falling to plant employees, while speeds would increase to allow 175 birds to pass by every minute, according to the letter.

"FSIS's proposal thus hobbles what should be a fundamental goal of modernization - to create a system that tracks rates of contamination and facilitates continuous improvement in the poultry industry to decrease those rates throughout the system," lawmakers wrote to Vilsack.