Proposed Poultry Inspection Rule Could Privatize Food Safety, Lead To Higher Rates Of Contamination

Food safety advocacy groups are fighting a proposed rule that would allow private companies to assume some of the food inspection duties currently handled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service currently oversees all poultry for blemishes and defects before the carcasses are fully processed, but under the new rule, poultry plants would assume those responsibilities.

The USDA estimates that the program, known as HIMP, would save the USDA just under $100 million over the next three years while providing a $520 million shot in the arm to poultry companies. At the same time, the USDA claims, it will reduce 5,200 poultry-related illnesses each year. Advocacy groups like Food & Water Watch, however, share a different story. FWW examined more than 5,000 USDA documents and found that companies already operating under trial versions of HIMP are missing defects at absurd rates, Food Safety News reports:

FWW said they found that company employees often miss quality defects like “feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass.”

Their analysis found that the average error rate for these types of defect in chicken slaughter facilities was 64 percent and 87 percent in turkey slaughter facilities. And for one turkey slaughter facility, nearly 100 percent of samples found this category of defect. FWW also found that the vast majority of non-compliance records filed for the 14 plants under the pilot was for “fecal contamination found on the carcasses.” Out of 229 NRs filed from March to August 2011, 208 (90 percent) were for visible fecal contamination that was missed by company employees.

The USDA says it is trying to “modernize” its outdated and inefficient system, but previous attempts to expand the HIMP program faced similar criticism. In 2002, the Government Accountability Office reported that some plans participating in HIMP had higher results of contamination than before. Five of 11 plants had higher rates of salmonella contamination while only two improved, and tests found higher rates of defects in seven of the plants. At the time, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) called the program a “recipe for food safety disaster.”

And if the various analyses of HIMP plants is true and it fails to decrease the instance of foodborne illness, the program likely won’t save taxpayers money, as FSIS claims. One out of six Americans suffer from foodborne illnesses each year, with 128,00 resulting in hospitalization and 3,000 resulting in death. According to Georgetown University’s Product Safety Project, those illnesses come at a cost of $152 billion a year.