WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Thursday the first new regulations for poultry inspection since 1957.
The rules, which were finalized Thursday, require plants to conduct their own testing and sampling of birds for the first time for food-borne pathogens such as campylobacter and salmonella, at least twice during the production process. The USDA will continue to conduct its own tests as well.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the changes would result in 5,000 fewer food-borne illnesses connected to poultry products every year.
“Bottom line, this is a significant opportunity to bring the inspection system for poultry into the 21st century,” Vilsack said.
He said the agency had taken into account concerns about worker safety and wouldn’t increase processing-line speeds as initially proposed and which the poultry industry had wanted. The speed will be capped at 140 birds per minute, rather than 175.
But under the new rules, fewer federal inspectors will be required to eyeball chicken carcasses at plants as they fly by on hooks in the slaughter line, a change that’s drawn criticism from food safety groups.
Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of the nonprofit Food & Water Watch, said the USDA’s concession on line speeds wasn’t a meaningful victory.
The “one USDA inspector left on the slaughter line under this new rule will still have to inspect 2.33 birds every second, an impossible task that leaves consumers at risk,” Hauter said in a statement.
She added that the new regulations effectively privatize the poultry inspection process by allowing companies to police themselves.
“With the poultry industry standing to gain financially due to increased production and fewer regulatory requirements, the plan is a gift from the Obama administration to the industry, one that will undermine consumer and worker safety, as well as animal welfare,” Hauter said.
The industry welcomed the news that the USDA would implement the regulations at last after a years-long bureaucratic process. But it had lobbied hard to increase line speeds, and the National Chicken Council, a trade group, expressed disappointment Thursday that speed limits would stay the same.
“It is extremely unfortunate and disappointing that politics have trumped sound science, 15 years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute,” National Chicken Council President Mike Brown said in a statement.
Brown said the cap of 140 birds per minute also went against global precedent.
“Broiler plants in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Belgium and Germany, among others, all operate at line speeds of 200 or more birds per minute,” he said.
Workplace safety groups spent two years advocating against the USDA’s proposal to increase line speeds, arguing that it could endanger the workers who must sort and trim inedible carcasses. Minorities, immigrants and women make up most of the low-wage workforce at poultry plants.
In 2008, The Charlotte Observer, a McClatchy newspaper, published a series of articles about dangerous working conditions at House of Raeford, a North Carolina poultry processor. The series highlighted the failure of federal regulators to crack down on plants that violated workplace safety rules.
The cap on line speeds the USDA announced Thursday is a testament to the power of workers’ voices in Washington, said Catherine Singley Harvey, the manager of the economic policy project for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group.
“The fact that the administration prevented a bad situation from becoming worse was a result of collective advocacy, so we’re pleased to see that USDA and the Department of Labor recognized the human costs of chicken production, and we look forward to working with both agencies in continuing to improve worker safety,” Singley Harvey said.
Vilsack said the agency “took very seriously” the feedback it had received over the last several years about the proposal. He said he was confident that reducing the number of inspectors on the slaughter line would free them to perform more important tasks elsewhere in plants, such as random pathogen testing and monitoring for cleanliness.
Federal inspectors shouldn’t be doing quality control, and the new regulations will give that responsibility to the plant’s workers, where it belongs, he said.
“We know a lot more about what makes food unsafe today than we did in 1957,” he said.
“The theory was that if there was a bruise or some indication that the bird was damaged in some way that that necessarily indicated that it would be a food safety risk,” Vilsack said. “The fact that a bird is bruised does not mean that it poses a food safety risk. . . . The reality is those birds may be equally safe in terms of consumption if cooked properly.”