Food Safety Debated Under USDA's Proposed Poultry Inspection System

USDA predicts that a 2012 proposal to move more inspectors from the production line to other parts of a facility will result in fewer foodborne illnesses. Critics say otherwise.

WASHINGTON—Will a revamped inspection system for young chicken and turkey operations reduce foodborne illness or compromise food safety?

That is a question deeply dividing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and consumer and labor groups.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) predicts that a 2012 proposal to move more inspectors from the evisceration line to other parts of a facility will result in at least 5,000 fewer illnesses annually from Salmonella and Campylobacter in an industry that slaughtered roughly 8.5 billion young chickens last year for food. 

FSIS and the poultry industry maintain the proposal will enable inspectors to focus more on such food-safety tasks as sanitation standards and microbiological testing for pathogens like Salmonella. Rather than being confined to examining the dead birds for physical defects such as bumps and bruises, FSIS inspectors will have the flexibility to search for causes of foodborne illnesses such as Salmonella, said Keith Williams, vice president of communications and marketing with the National Turkey Federation. According to a powerpoint presentation from FSIS, such sorting activities largely relate to the marketability of the carcasses rather than food safety.

"We see it [FSIS' proposal] as vastly improving food safety by using some modern methods in the inspection system," Williams said.  

Consumer and labor groups argue the proposal will compromise food safety and exacerbate the burden on inspectors who already suffer carpel tunnel syndrome and other ailments.

Under current regulations, as many as four FSIS inspectors work on an evisceration line in which up to 140 chicken carcasses per minute are examined. FSIS has proposed increasing the number of inspections to 175 chickens per minute with one FSIS inspector on the line and one FSIS inspector off the line. According to FSIS, plant personnel are free to dedicate additional personnel to sort the carcasses on the line. According to Williams, current line speeds for turkeys are between 30 and 55 birds per minute, with the proposal increasing the number to 55.

Critics contend one FSIS inspector on the evisceration line cannot possibly inspect 175 dead birds in one minute, or three carcasses every second.

Responding to such criticism, an FSIS official told AgriTalk in a Jan. 15 interview that the defects related to food safety on chickens are "quite obvious". “If there is an abnormal bird, that is very easily identified," said Dan Engeljohn, assistant administrator for FSIS' Office of Field Operations.

Stanley Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, disagrees. Not all defects are easily identified, he said, citing a leukosis regulation that renders tiny lesions on a carcass condemnable.

"Engeljohn has never worked the line. I can tell you I have worked the line at 180-something a minute, and it's not that easy," Painter said in a phone interview.

FSIS said the new inspection system would free up inspectors to concentrate on food-safety tasks such as ensuring that a facility is complying with sanitation and HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) requirements. Under the current inspection system, there is only one offline inspector for every six online inspectors, according to the agency.

"The inspectors will have better capacity to be able to observe the sanitation that's occurring in those facilities and ensure that the poultry is actually meeting the regulatory requirements," Engeljohn told AgriTalk. 

Again, Painter isn't persuaded. Under the new system, he said, two inspectors would rotate between inspecting the chickens on the evisceration line and working off line. If one person falls ill, the other inspector would be responsible for standing on the line during his entire shift, leaving no one to perform the offline food-safety tasks that FSIS has touted under its proposal, he said.

"All this extra testing and doing and seeing under what this [agency] is saying is not going to happen," he said.

According to FSIS, the proposed rule would require the industry to implement controls to identify Salmonella and Campylobacter. Poultry slaughter establishments would have to develop written procedures to prevent contamination of carcasses through fecal matter, Salmonella and Campylobacter. Establishments would have to sample and conduct analysis for microbial organisms before and after the carcasses are placed in the chiller, which is intended to hamper microbial growth.

A 2011 risk assessment from FSIS revealed "establishments with more unscheduled offline inspection activities have lower Salmonella and Campylobacter prevalence than establishments with fewer unscheduled offline activities." According to the assessment, moving inspectors off the line could result in 4,286 fewer Salmonella-related illnesses and 986 fewer illnesses related to Campylobacter.

"We need to focus on activities that reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter on the poultry in the marketplace," said Dr. Douglas Fulnechek, president of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians and a supervisory veterinary medical officer with FSIS, in a phone interview. "Presently most of the activities that our inspection force performs is to determine the wholesomeness of the carcass but the inspector cannot see the Salmonella and the Campylobacter."

Fulnechek spoke on behalf of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, noting he was not authorized to speak on behalf of FSIS.

Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist of Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest organization, argued testing of Salmonella and Campylobacter isn't very useful unless USDA obtains authority from Congress to declare the pathogens as adulterants and remove tainted food from the market. Currently, he said, FSIS posts on its website a list of companies in which more than 7.5% of sampled young chicken carcasses test positive for Salmonella.

"Even if they find these pathogens, they are not considered to be adulterants meaning that product can still go into commerce," Corbo said, citing recent outbreaks of Salmonella at Foster Farms as examples. "USDA hasn't even issued a recall because Salmonella is not really considered an adulterant."

However, Fulnechek pointed out the proposal will make more offline inspectors available to oversee implementation of slaughtering and dressing controls, such as ensuring that removal of the intestines—possibly containing pathogens like Salmonella—does not spill back onto the chickens.

He also raised the prospect that poultry establishments will implement additional controls to eliminate pathogens, such as using an antimicrobial like peroxyacetic (also known as peracetic) acid on the evisceration line and in the processing area to kill the Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Some labor groups have expressed fears that the faster line speeds will result in more injuries such as the deterioration of cartilage and tissue. The poultry industry is said to be afflicted with high rates of worker injuries. Seventy-two percent of Alabama poultry workers interviewed by the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a work-related injury or illness, according to a 2013 report, "Unsafe at These Speeds."

"If you increase the speed limit on the highway, most drivers would take advantage of the new freedom and without the proper safegards more accidents will happen. We are dealing with an industry that already doesn't have safeguards," said Catherine Singley Harvey, senior policy analyst with the Economic and Employment Policy Project of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

The National Chicken Council (NCC), a trade association representing the chicken industry, disputes claims that workers will suffer more injuries under the new inspection system. NCC cited Bureau of Labor Statistics data demonstrating that the industry has reported a 74% decline in worker injuries since 1994, and a separate study that found facilities processing 175 birds per minute are as safe as traditional establishments.

Labor groups claims workers often don't report their injuries for fear of retribution from their employer such as threats of deportation and termination from employment. In the Southern Poverty Law Center report, 66% of respondents said they believed fellow workers were reluctant or afraid to report worker injuries.

Engeljohn said concerns expressed about worker conditions has created an opportunity for USDA to work with other agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to ensure the government is monitoring worker safety and doing more to inform industry about guidelines to decrease on-the-job injuries.

"Drawing attention to it has actually … created new opportunities for us to be more observant and cross talking with our sister agencies," he said in the AgriTalk interview.

Painter has estimated that the inspection proposal could result in a loss of 1,500 jobs. Engeljohn pegged the number at about 500 jobs, but he said the agency would try to find positions for which those displaced workers would be eligible.

According to Food & Water Watch, USDA projected eliminating 800 positions through attrition and began soliciting temporary workers in 2012 in anticipation that its inspection proposal would take effect. In a letter sent Feb. 10 to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Food & Water Watch raised concerns that the agency is facing a shortage of inspectors because its solicitation for temporary food inspectors allegedly has not drawn strong interest.

Food & Water Watch identified an 11% vacancy rate in the Raleigh District, "causing the workloads of the remaining inspection personnel to double and triple." Corbo said the Raleigh District Manager shared the vacancy rate with Painter, who confirmed with Food Product Design that he received the information from the district manager and his resource management analyst.

FSIS Administrator Al Almanza dismissed the concerns raised by Food & Water Watch in a statement to Meatingplace.

"I started my career as a food inspector. Does anybody really believe that I would do anything to harm the ability of our food inspectors to be able to do their jobs every day?" Almanza said. "Food and Water Watch—when they get to be credible media—maybe I'll start to read what they have to say, but I don't have time to pay attention to that."

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