Recently, with Obama re-election posters blanketing the audience at the Democratic National Convention and Republicans mocking Obama’s campaign slogan, the word of the moment was Forward. But when it comes to food safety, this Administration is stuck in reverse. The 56-page 2012 Democratic Party Platform included no mention of food safety or the President’s monumental signing of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Even more alarming are the Administration’s proposed set of rules for the inspection of poultry that would take us back to the days of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” That proposal would turn over key inspection duties to the poultry companies so that they can police themselves and allow them to increase line speeds in chicken plants from the current 35 birds-per-minute to to 175 birds-per-minute. That’s right — one USDA inspector will have ONE THIRD OF A SECOND to inspect each bird to make sure that it did not have an animal disease, fecal contamination, tumors, improperly removed intestines or feathers before it is dipped in a chemical soup meant to kill microbial pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter. A Food & Water Watch analysis of the proposal’s pilot program reveals large numbers of defects — including feathers, bile and feces — were routinely missed when company employees instead of USDA inspectors performed inspection tasks.
This proposal is reminiscent of “The Jungle” not only due to the “ick” factor behind improperly regulated and supervised meat production, but also because of the little consideration given to worker safety in these poultry slaughterhouses. The modern-day Jurgis Rudkus faces many of the same issues as those he faced 100 years ago. Even at current line speeds, poultry workers face serious safety issues. Musculoskeletal diseases, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, caused by repetitive motions in poultry processing are rampant among these workers. Occupational epidemiologists have begun to publish studies that describe anecdotal evidence of the occupational diseases suffered by plant workers, but long-term study is needed to evaluate how the conditions on these poultry slaughterhouses and the demands placed on workers impact their safety and health.
Is the Obama Administration planning to do that before it implements the new inspection system? No. Instead, it will conduct a study in one poultry facility over a three and a half year period to determine whether any changes are required to mitigate safety concerns, but it will not wait for the results of that study before plowing ahead with the new inspection program.
The USDA will save $90 million over a three-year period by eliminating 800 USDA inspector positions and the industry stands to add to its bottom line $260 million per year by being able to increase production and not face as many regulatory requirements. So the proposal is a boon for a handful of giant poultry processing corporations and budget hawks but concern for the health and safety of eaters and workers has been left in the scrap pile.
Mr. President, if you really want to improve food safety, you need to go to Congress to get the authority to hold the poultry industry accountable. What your Administration is proposing is counter-intuitive. Handing over the reins of inspection to the agribusiness barons is not going to help consumers. It certainly will not help their employees. This proposal may have poultry whizzing forward on slaughter lines at break-neck speeds, but it is a big step backward for the safety of our food supply and could put thousands of workers and all Americans who eat chicken in danger.