The post originally appeared on scienceblogs.com.
By Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH of George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services
The Obama Administration’s USDA continues to insist that their proposed rule to “modernize” poultry slaughter inspections will improve food safety. Just last week, Secretary Vilsack’s office said it is sticking with their plan, saying:
“comprehensive effort to modernize poultry slaughter inspection in ways that will reduce the risk for American families.”
For the last 18 months, however, the USDA Secretary has heard loud and clear that his agency’s proposal is certain to do much more harm than good. Advocates for and experts on food safety, workers safety, consumers, animal rights, and even USDA’s own inspectors, have provided evidence of this during the agency’s public comment period. They’ve also follow-up with letters and petitions reiterating why the proposal should be scrapped. It’s fallen on Vilsack’s and his staff’s deaf ears.
USDA’s response is particularly offensive because it contradicts one of President Obama’s declarations. The President insists that his Administration wants input from the public. He may say his team wants input, but they’ve demonstrated no interest in being persuaded by it.
And the evidence continues to pile up.
The USDA’s proposed rule on a new poultry slaughter inspection process must be withdrawn. The most recent evidence added to the hefty stack includes:
- An investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluding that USDA does not have evidence from its pilot project to support its proposed new inspection process. GAO found problematic that USDA: “will not complete another evaluation before it issues a final rule.” That’s the final rule that USDA insists it will issue very soon.
- Legislation introduced in September 2013 by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) would halt USDA’s action. Responding to the GAO report, the Senator wants to ensure USDA gathers the necessary evidence to justify its assertions that the new system will improve food safety.
- A coalition of 16 civil rights, worker safety, and faith groups petitioned USDA (and the Secretary of Labor) to withdraw the proposed rule, and adopt a rule to protect poultry- and meat-processing workers from the extreme production line speeds which injury and disable them. These workers—many of them Latino and African-American, and female—are vulnerable to employer abuse and already experience severe injury and disability because of their work.
- And, food safety experts persist in assembling the most current evidence on defects in the USDA’s pilot project and proposed rule. As new evidence emerges, they provide it to USDA. They have repeatedly asked USDA Secretary Vilsack to revoke the the equivalency determinations because the HIMP model in swine slaughter is flawed. The most recent letter informed USDA (just in case they didn’t already know) that the European Union seems to have rejected the Australian privatized meat inspection model. As Food & Water Watch explained, the EU’s concern is the
“apparent conflict of interest of having company-paid employees inspect meat for safety and wholesomeness. In its zeal to privatize inspection here in the U.S., USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Services may have created a trade crisis by hastily approving its ill-conceived program abroad. It’s time to revoke those equivalency determinations before there is a major international food safety incident.”
All of this—combined with the overwhelming rejection of the USDA approach in comments submitted to the agency during the formal public comment period—should be more than enough for the agency to scrap their plan. But there’s more.
Icing on the Cake
The icing on the cake is stellar reporting by the Washington Post’s Kimberly Kindy. For the last seven months she’s investigated the potential impact of USDA’s proposed changes to poultry slaughter inspection.
In April, Kindy wrote about the death of USDA poultry inspector Jose Navarro. The 37 year-old father died from a pulmonary hemorrhage likely related to exposure to chemicals used to disinfect poultry. Navarro’s assignment was inspecting poultry at Murray’s Chicken in upstate New York. Her investigation led to a private report provided by USDA to the House Appropriations Committee. The agency acknowledged that in plants which have already accelerated line speeds, workers have been exposed to larger amounts of chemical disinfecting agents.
“The use of powerful antimicrobial chemicals has increased in order to decrease microbial loads on carcasses.”
Increasing production line speeds is exactly what USDA is proposing to do. The chemical agents in which the poultry soaks, poses a serious risk of harm to USDA inspectors, as well as the thousands of workers employed in these plants. Jose Navarro’s death is the gravest example of that point.
In September, Kindy reported on USDA’s failure to control contaminated meat produced at plants that are using the agency’s “modernized” inspection system from reaching consumers. In exchange for adopting the new system, poultry and meat producers can substantially increase lines speeds, use employees to inspect the product throughout the process (which means fewer USDA inspectors) and come up with their own scheme to identify contaminated meat and poultry. The system has been adopted by some oversees producers whose meat is imported to the U.S.
Kindy interviewed members of USDA’s own scientific advisory committee. Commenting on the USDA’s pilot and plans to implement it nationwide, one committee member told Kindy:
“We should not be putting it out there, saying it is okay for other countries to use, when it has so many flaws and when contaminated meat is coming in.”
Last week, Kindy added to her series on USDA’s plan. She reported that the proposed increase in line speed will not only be a danger to workers, lead to increase use of chemicals, and could allow contaminated meat into the food supply, but that the “USDA plan to speed up poultry-processing lines could increase risk of bird abuse.” [This next part is not for the faint of heart.]
“Nearly 1 million chickens and turkeys are unintentionally boiled alive each year in U.S. slaughterhouses, often because fast-moving lines fail to kill the birds before they are dropped into scalding water, Agriculture Department records show.”
USDA reacted to Kindy’s Oct 29 story with a post on the agency’s blog. They insist their proposal is just hunky-dory, adding
“Experts agree that it would significantly reduce foodborne illnesses – reducing dangerous pathogens like Salmonella to protect American families. Improving America’s food inspection system will do just that, and USDA is committed to undertaking this effort in a way that ensures even stronger humane handling measures in the future.”
As far as I can tell, the “experts who are agreeing” are two individuals on whom the USDA relies. One is Professor Billy Hargis from the University of Arkansas. He is the Sustainable Poultry Health Chair, and endowed position, funded in part, by the Tyson Family (Tyson, as in the mammoth poultry company.) The other expert is Douglas Fulnechek, DVM, a manager and veterinarian at USDA. Personally, I don’t consider either unbaised experts. In contrast, many public health experts, who have no financial or professional stake in the outcome, submitted scads of evidence to USDA on the likelihood of grave harm should its proposal be adopted.
From contaminated meat and crippled workers, to toxic chemicals and tortured chickens, surely the White House will ask Secretary Vilsack to withdraw this ill-conceived rule. If not, we’ll be asking the Obama Administration, which side are you on? I take that back, we’ll know which side they’re on.