Senators urge Vilsack to move rule to update USDA poultry inspection system

By Derrick Cain

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 2013 - A bipartisan group of 13 senators sent a letter Friday to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to advance a proposal to modernize USDA's poultry inspection system.

The proposed rule, released in January 2012 by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, would create a new inspection system for young chicken and turkey slaughter establishments. The new inspection system would, on a voluntary basis, require establishment personnel to conduct carcass sorting activities before FSIS conducts online carcass inspection.

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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. 

The letter noted that a risk assessment, which accompanied the proposed rule, found 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. “The effectiveness of this system has been demonstrated through a pilot program which was run in 25 poultry plants for over 14 years,” the letter said.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., said USDA has not updated its poultry slaughter inspection standards in about 60 years. “This long-overdue rule would help transition the inspection process to a science- and risk-based system that can better detect and prevent foodborne pathogens harmful to public health,” Hagan said.

House members sent a similar letter recently to USDA, signed on by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

The National Turkey Federation and National Chicken Council have offered their support of the rule.

In opposition, the National Consumers League and the AFL-CIO, as well as other groups, have argued that the new system could result in serious repercussions for food safety and worker safety.

“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 groups said recently.

The groups said 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.

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