The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is nearly ready to implement a new rule that will increase line speeds at chicken processing plants, saying it will improve efficiency and enhance food safety, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a number of consumer-safety groups, and other organizations are urging President Barack Obama to reject the rule.
Most significantly, the new rule would increase chicken processing line speeds – the number of birds inspectors visually check per minute — from 140 per minute to 175 per minute. The rule also would effectively remove most USDA inspectors from the line to focus on other areas of concern within the plant, leaving factories to police their own production.
“The proposed rule would let the fox guard the hen house, at the expense of worker safety and consumer protection. We urge you to stop any further consideration of this ill-conceived proposal,” Food and Water Watch, Public Citizen, and 100 other groups and businesses said in a letter to the president.
“The department is promoting this change as an opportunity to modernize the inspection program,” the letter continues. “But what it boils down to is an attempt to cut USDA’s workforce by putting the health and safety of consumers and workers at risk.”
According to Law360, a study conducted by Food and Water Watch “found that company employees in one turkey slaughter plant in the pilot program missed 99 percent of food safety and wholesomeness defects.”
The Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups are also concerned about the risk of physical injury and death to plant workers when the already maximized line speeds get even faster. Instead of meeting rising demand for chicken by expanding facilities and hiring additional workers, the poultry processing industry wants to rely more heavily on the use of toxic chemicals to treat diseased and contaminated chicken that line workers miss, further jeopardizing the health of workers and consumers alike with chemical-induced illness.
These concerns are especially valid for plant workers in Alabama, where poultry is a $15-billion-per-year industry and growing. Currently, more than 21 million chickens per week are killed and processed in Alabama, more than 1 billion per year.
Chicken and turkey products are a main source of food poisoning in the U.S. due to overcrowded, unclean living conditions promoting salmonella, listeria, and other foodborne pathogens. Outbreaks of virulent, antibiotic resistant salmonella linked to Foster Farms chicken products continue to infect people in several states more than a year after the first cases were identified, and other manufacturers routinely recall millions of pounds of poultry products every year over health risks the products present to consumers.