WASHINGTON, Sept. 12, 2014 – The advocacy group Food & Water Watch (FWW) has filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the implementation of new poultry inspection rules that would allow poultry companies to take over some inspection functions currently assigned to USDA.

“These rules essentially privatize poultry inspection, and pave the way for others in the meat industry to police themselves,” FWW Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said in a news release. “The USDA’s decision to embrace the scheme—an initiative lobbied for by the meat industry for more than a decade—flies in the face of the agency’s mandate to protect consumers. What’s more, we believe it’s illegal.”

FWW said the lawsuit asserts that the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) rules violate the 1957 Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), which gives USDA the authority to protect consumer health and welfare by assuring that poultry products are wholesome, not adulterated, and properly marked, labeled and packaged.

The organization alleges that NPIS violates a number of statutory requirements, including the PPIA’s prescription that federal inspectors, not poultry company employees, are responsible for condemning adulterated young chicken and turkey carcasses. Under the new system, company employees will be charged with removing adulterated product from slaughter lines at their own discretion. FWW says the new rules do not require training for these company inspectors, whereas USDA inspectors undergo extensive training.

FWS also charges elements were changed in the final rule that were not even hinted at in the proposed rule for public review.

Defendants in the lawsuit, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, are Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other officials from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

FWW referred to comments it submitted to the USDA in May 2012 that included the results of an analysis that it had done on federal government documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to FWW, the analysis found that for 11 young chicken and three young turkey plants participating in a pilot program used to design this change in inspection rules, for the first shift of production in those plants from March to August 2011, establishment personnel missed more than 30 percent of conditions on chickens that includes blisters, bruises, external mutilation, fractures, sores, and scabs, and 60 percent of dressing defects such as the presence of feathers, oil glands, and trachea. Similar results were found on turkeys, FWW said.

“USDA’s new system will harm consumers and reverse 100 years of effective government regulation of the meat industry,” said Hauter. “It’s essentially a return to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It’s a huge step backwards for our food safety system.” Sinclair's 1906 novel exposed unsanitary conditions in the turn-of-the-century meatpacking industry in Chicago.

A FSIS spokemsan said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation. However, he said FSIS could comment on the public health benefits of modernizing a "hundred year old" poultry inspection system.
"The U.S.has been relying on a poultry inspection model that dates back to 1957," he said. "This modernization effort brings poultry inspection into the 21st century by providing for a science-based approach that imposes new requirements on the industry and focuses our inspectors on those activities that have the greatest impact on food safety. These improvements will prevent thousands of illnesses each year.”
(This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. EDT)

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