USDA cost-cutting plan would turn over inspections to poultry processors, increase risk of foodborne illnesses
WASHINGTON, Jan. 8, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The American Federation of Government Employees has joined with food and worker safety groups in calling on Congress to reject a budget proposal from USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to implement a new poultry inspection system during FY 2014. AFGE and the other groups also are urging Congress to restore the $11.73 million budget cut that would eliminate FSIS inspector positions.
AFGE and other members of the Safe Food Coalition and Worker Health and Safety Coalition sent a letter to the heads of the agriculture appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate on Jan. 6, urging them to remove report language endorsing the poultry inspection overhaul and restore the funding for FSIS inspectors.
"USDA's poultry inspection system does need to be modernized, but this proposal raises serious food safety and worker safety concerns," the letter states. The letter was sent to Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Roy Blunt of Missouri and Reps. Robert Aderholt of Alabama and Sam Farr of California.
The USDA proposal, which was proposed nearly two years ago, would remove most federal inspectors from the slaughter line and turn over inspection activities currently performed by federal inspectors to untrained plant employees. The proposal also would allow plants to increase their line speeds up to 175 chicken carcasses per minute, meaning that the lone remaining federal inspector on the slaughter line will have one-third of one second to examine each chicken carcass for disease, infection and contamination.
"With three birds whizzing by every second, how could any worker possibly be expected to conduct a thorough examination of these carcasses? The obvious answer is, they can't. And that means the American public is going to be at higher risk for foodborne illnesses and outbreaks if this proposal becomes law," AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said.
The Government Accountability Office has identified major deficiencies in the data USDA are using to claim that its proposal would ensure equivalent, if not better, levels of food safety and quality. The proposal does not require plants to test for Salmonella or Campylobacter, the two pathogens most frequently associated with raw poultry.
In addition, ramping up line speeds to such an extreme level will have a serious detrimental impact on the industry's workers, advocates contend. Multiple reports have found alarming rates of job-related injuries and illnesses by poultry workers, even at the current line speeds.
In addition to AFGE, other organizations signing the letter are the Center for Effective Government, Center for Food Safety, Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch, Government Accountability Project, Humane Society of the United Sates, National Consumers League, National Council of La Raza, National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, Southern Poverty Law Center, STOP Foodborne Illness, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and Worksafe Inc.
Also signing the letter are James Albers, a certified industrial hygienist in Cincinnati; Craig Slatin, a professor of health education and policy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell; and Rena Steinzor, an environmental professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the largest federal employee union, representing 670,000 workers in the federal government and the government of the District of Columbia.