For the USDA, Chicken is Just Politics

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Food & Water Watch blog

For the USDA, Chicken is Just Politics

When you purchase chicken at the grocery store, you might have the perfectly reasonable expectation that the poultry you are buying was raised on an American farm, and that it was inspected by a government official. Well, lower your expectations: if the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gets its way, poultry inspections will be left to the very same people that process the poultry—corporations—in a privatized poultry inspection scheme that is bad for workers and food safety. Furthermore, the agency appears to be paving the way for processed poultry imports from none other than China, the birthplace of several egregious food safety scandals.

First, the proposed “Modernization of Poultry Inspection” rule would remove most government food safety inspectors from the poultry slaughter lines and replace them with untrained company employees, allowing processing companies to police themselves. It would also permit chicken plants to increase line speeds to 175 birds-per-minute. The government has, unsurprisingly, received hundreds of thousands of comments from consumers opposed to this change. It is such a bad idea that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a scathing analysis of the pilot project that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is using to justify its proposal to privatize poultry inspection in some 200 poultry plants across the country.

The GAO report, requested by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), chair of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, Poultry, Marketing and Agriculture Security, evaluated 20 young chicken and five young turkey plants and reveals gaping methodological flaws in the pilot project. The GAO also questioned how FSIS could use its flawed evaluation of the pilot project as the basis to propose expanding the privatized inspection model across the entire poultry industry.

By supporting poultry inspection privatization, the Obama Administration is prioritizing poultry industry economic interests over consumers and workers in poultry plants who face faster line speeds and increased safety risks. But the administration doesn’t stop there: it recently cleared four Chinese food processors to be able to export poultry products to the U.S., which would be a boon to companies that want to take advantage of China’s low-paid work force to maximize profits.

Under the plan USDA is finalizing, the Chinese processors can only process raw poultry that comes from “approved” sources, which are limited to countries such as the U.S., Canada, and Chile. This means raw poultry needs to be shipped to China from those countries for cooking before it can be exported to the U.S.

However, there will be no USDA inspector stationed in the Chinese poultry processing facilities to verify that the Chinese are cooking poultry products from only the “approved” sources, and not using their own poultry for export; and because the poultry will be processed, no Country of Origin label is required, leaving U.S. consumers in the dark.

But what’s worse is this action by the USDA is the first step towards allowing China to export their own chicken to the U.S. even though there are serious animal health concerns with avian influenza in China.

It has been no secret that China has wanted to export chicken to the U.S. in exchange for reopening its market for beef from the U.S. (which has been closed since 2003 due to the diagnosis of a cow in Washington State with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.) Once again, trade trumps food safety.

But some things are more important that profits. The safety of the food we feed our families is one of them. These two actions by the USDA serve industry interests—not the public interest. President Obama should assure that the USDA reverses course and serves consumers, not corporations. Take action today to send this message to the President and the USDA, and ask them not to privatize chicken inspections.

Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch. She has worked extensively on energy, food, water and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Experienced in developing policy positions and legislative strategies, she is also a skilled and accomplished organizer, having lobbied and developed grassroots field strategy and action plans.

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