Lawmakers ask Vilsack to withdraw proposed rule on poultry inspection

By Derrick Cain

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WASHINGTON, March 18, 2014 - A group of 68 House lawmakers urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Monday to withdraw a proposed rule that would create a new inspection system for young chicken and turkey slaughter establishments.

The pending rule, released in January 2012 by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), would require establishment personnel, on a voluntary basis, to conduct carcass sorting activities before FSIS conducts online carcass inspection. This would allow plant employees to check carcasses for defects and perform other quality-assurance tasks not related to food safety, according to supporters of the rule. Supporters say the new system would free up some FSIS inspectors to focus more on food safety-related tasks, such as oversight and verification, microbiological testing for pathogens, sanitation standards and antimicrobial controls in the plant.

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Opponents of the proposed rule say the system would undermine food safety, worker safety and animal welfare. They argue that the proposal would increase the speed of the poultry line, while simultaneously removing government inspectors from the poultry slaughter line and turning over a number of inspection activities to plant employees. The proposal would allow plants to increase their line speeds up to 175 chicken carcasses per minute with a single inspector on the slaughter line. Currently, plant line speeds are limited to about 35 birds per minute per inspector.

When the proposed rule was released, Vilsack said the system would both improve food safety and reduce costs for the industry and for FSIS. The savings would come from assigning to company workers some tasks, including identifying bruising or discoloration of birds, now done by FSIS. USDA said the proposal would give FSIS personnel more flexibility to patrol the processing plant and provide scientific oversight to ensure the plant meets food safety performance standards. The changes possibly would save the government more than $90 million over three years by shifting about 1,000 workers to higher-priority jobs, and reduce industry's production costs by at least $256.6 million per year, according to USDA.

The lawmakers seeking to withdraw the proposal are being led by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Jim Moran, D-Va., Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. In a letter today to Vilsack, the lawmakers wrote, “We urge FSIS to withdraw the proposed rule until the agency has thoroughly addressed its impact on the public, workers, and animals and adherence to good commercial practices.”

In support of the proposed rule, 13 senators sent a letter to Vilsack in December urging him to advance the proposed rule, arguing that more than 5,000 foodborne illnesses per year would be prevented if the system was changed in this way, saving about $80 million in health care costs annually. Also, in November, several House members sent a similar letter of support to USDA, which was signed on by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

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