Don’t let poultry-processing industry police itself

The News TribuneJanuary 24, 2014 

New rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would drastically cut federal oversight of poultry processors and allow them to largely police themselves.

Somewhere in that proposal is a joke about letting foxes guard henhouses. We’ll leave that to the Jon Stewarts of the world, but there’s nothing funny about what the proposed changes could mean for American consumers.

If the rules are implemented, most federal inspectors who now provide oversight of poultry-processing lines would be replaced by company-hired workers. The USDA says that pilot programs using plant employees to inspect chicken and turkey carcasses have worked well and that there have been no major food-borne illnesses or worker injury increases at any of the the sites.

But there’s no requirement that the plant-provided inspectors be trained. How — or even if — they’re trained would be left up to the plant operators. Privatizing inspection of poultry processing with workers who aren’t required to be trained sounds like a recipe for trouble.

Critics say the assessments of those pilot programs are suspect, noting that many reviewers are based at universities that receive funding from the poultry industry.

The proposed new rules also would increase the number of birds processed per minute — from 140 now to 175. The USDA estimates that would increase production by about 6 percent and save about 3 cents per bird in processing costs.

Critics argue that worker safety might suffer if processing lines are speeded up. They discount the pilot programs’ results by noting that injury statistics are based on employer reports, and several studies have found that not all injuries are correctly reported.

Many workers in the industry suffer from repetitive-motion conditions and other work-related injuries but often are reluctant to report them because they need the job so badly. Speeding up processing lines is likely to exacerbate that problem.

A report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office — Congress’ investigative arm — noted concerns last August that the USDA hadn’t collected sufficient data to evaluate whether the proposed changes would result in better food safety outcomes.

That should be a priority for an industry that has had its share of contamination problems.

If the GAO is worried, that’s not a good sign. The USDA should do more homework, and not rely so much on reports generated by industry-funded sources.

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