GAO discovered that USDA did not fully calibrate and disclose its data concerning faster line speeds at plants, which poultry and meat industry stakeholders argue increase output while ensuring safe production.
“As a result,” GAO writes, “the public…did not have complete and accurate information to inform their comments on the proposed rule and provide them with a clearer understanding of the potential impacts of the final rule, including uncertainty behind selected estimates.”
GAO found USDA used two years of pilot data, rather than the complete decade’s worth, to determine that the pilot inspection program could offer “equivalent, if not better, levels of food safety and quality than currently provided at plants not in the pilot project.”
GAO also reports that USDA misused data from poultry plants to create rules for young turkey facilities.
Additionally, GAO finds that the agriculture department’s cost benefit analysis was based on limited data. The department, for example, did not disclose that it gathered no cost information from turkey plants in the pilot project, even as it purported to make accurate estimates about the cost of the wider program.
The pilot, which began in young chicken, turkey and hog plants in 1998 as part of a wider effort to improve the country’s food safety regime, is meant to identify “critical control points,” during which inspectors can both thoroughly inspect and expedite the slaughter process.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., commissioned the report, and wrote Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) Administrator Howard Shlanski today to ask the “proposed rule to modify poultry inspection does not move forward until further action is taken to protect food safety.”
In a response penned by Under Secretary for Food Safety Elizabeth Hagen, USDA and its Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) said they would update their analyses and continue to move toward a final rule to modernize poultry slaughter inspection.
In a statement released today, American Meat Institute’s Senior Director of Worker Safety J. Dan McCausland said his industry always complies with USDA safety regulations.
He also stressed that increased and possibly dangerous line speeds are not in the meat sector’s “best interests.”
“‘Miscuts’ are very expensive and injuries to workers are precisely what we work to avoid every day,” he said.
The National Chicken Council also said it is fully committed to food safety, and acknowledged that FSIS says it will fix the issues discovered by the report before issuing a final rule.
Ashley Peterson, NCC’s vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, also reiterated the poultry industry’s belief in the reformed slaughter system.
“In an effort to continue our progress towards reducing foodborne illnesses, we believe that the poultry inspection system should be modernized to transition to a model that is more science and risk-based, from one that was implemented in 1957,” she said.
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