USDA’s Poultry Inspection Proposal: Separating Myth vs. Fact

USDA has been exploring the modernization of its poultry inspection system for two decades – a system that was originally developed in the 1950s.  The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in 1997 reported that studies by the National Academy of Sciences, the General Accounting Office (now, Government Accountability Office), and USDA “have established the need for fundamental change in the meat and poultry inspection program.”

A pilot program was then put in place in 1999 in 20 chicken plants.  It has since been studied, debated and reviewed in depth to assure its effectiveness as to how best modernize inspection.

Since USDA published the proposed rule more than a year ago, there has been a lot of misinformation about what the rule would mean for the industry, our workforce and for consumers.

One thing is certain – whether chicken plants operate under traditional inspection or choose to opt in to this voluntary, modernized inspection system, the end result is the same – rigorous food safety standards are applied to all chicken products and these products must meet or exceed these safety standards set forth by USDA in order to reach consumers.

Here’s a look at separating myths versus facts about what the proposed inspection system means for the chicken industry, for worker safety and the safety of chicken products.

For our Workforce

Myth:  The proposed rule is likely to prove harmful for worker safety.

FactThere is no evidence in the pilot program over the past 15 years to substantiate the assertion that increased line speeds will increase injuries.  In fact, the safety record in all poultry plants has improved dramatically.  Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data show the industry has had a 74 percent decrease in its worker injury and illness rates since 1994.

A recent survey found plants operating at 175 birds per minute as part of the USDA pilot program are as safe for workers as traditional plants. Recordable injury rates in pilot plants were 5.6 per 100 workers in 2009 and 5.3 in 2010, compared with an industry average of 6.1 per 100 workers in 2009 and 5.5 in 2010.

Myth:  Studies that looked at traditional poultry plants where line speeds were 70 to 91 birds per minute, found that 59% of workers had definite or possible carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Increased line speeds of up to 175 birds per minute as permitted under the proposal would increase the percentage of workers with CTS and other repetitive motion injuries.

FactThese studies actually focused on plant activities outside of the slaughtering process and thus are unrelated to the activities covered in the proposed rule.

For Food Safety

Myth:  The proposal would likely increase the rates of ‘defects’ for birds going down the processing line, allowing each plant to decide the appropriate level of ‘defects,’ which can include blisters, bruises, scabs, feathers, bile, ingesta, and a variety of poultry-specific diseases.

Fact:  Science-based evidence demonstrates that there is no correlation between visible defects and food-borne illness.  Additionally, under the proposed rule, industry must comply with current Ready-to-Cook regulatory standards, which addresses ‘defects’ for poultry products.  From a common sense viewpoint, a company would harm the marketability and demand for their product if they allowed visible ‘defects’ on their products.

Myth:  A single government inspector would have only one-third of a second to examine each chicken carcass for food safety and other problems.

Fact:  Currently, inspectors have two seconds to conduct a visual inspection.  However, visual inspection is only one of several other scientifically-validated measures to protect food from contamination and to reduce bacteria levels at dozens of different points during the entire production process.  While visual inspection will remain a vital part of the inspection process, it will be coupled with additional pathogen detection capabilities that are essential to ensuring a safe and wholesome chicken product.

Myth:  The lack of a prescriptive testing program would prevent inspectors from holding plants accountable and ensuring that plants are testing for the most important and dangerous pathogens.

Fact:  There is no science-based evidence to demonstrate that a prescriptive testing program would improve a plant’s ability to detect dangerous food-borne pathogens.  The proposed rule would allow plants to select an indicator microorganism or pathogen to test for, based on supportable scientific evidence.  Working with a plant to develop testing programs and identifying control points would allow an inspector to hold a particular plant accountable to their vulnerabilities.  It also would allow the inspector the flexibility to identify additional points of concern in the process as they emerge.

For the Industry:

Myth:  The proposal would allow plants to increase their line speeds five-fold from 35 birds per minute up to 175 chicken carcasses per minute with a single inspector on the slaughter line.

Fact:  Currently, line speeds in traditional poultry plants can run up to 140 birds per minute, so the limit will increase from 140 to 175 birds per minute, not increase from 35 to 175 birds per minute.

Myth: The proposed rule would “privatize” inspection.

Fact:  The chicken industry remains one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States.  Under the proposal and in the pilot program, USDA remains in its oversight role and USDA inspectors will still be in every plant, looking at each carcass to ensure the safety of chicken products and providing them with the USDA seal of approval for wholesomeness.  The proportion of them doing critical food safety-related tasks will actually increase.

Specifically, a USDA inspector will be stationed further down the evisceration line and just before the chiller to ensure that birds have been properly processed.  The facility will now be in charge of its own quality assurance program by training sorters to remove any quality defects from carcasses thereby allowing FSIS inspectors to focus more on food safety-related parameters and not visible defects.

Myth:  Should the proposal go through, chicken plants will simply “flip a light switch” and start operating under higher line speeds.

Fact:  First, the new inspection system would be voluntary. Should a company opt in, implementing the new system would not be an easy process.

In fact, the implementation process will require extensive time, effort and investment. Substantial capital will be required to make the necessary changes – from equipment to personnel – within each chicken processing facility that chooses to implement the new system and production adjustments would only be made when the market dictates such.

Equipment in many chicken processing facilities is already at capacity.  If a facility wants to keep its existing equipment, it still will have to retrofit the existing layout by moving lines and installing new inspector stands.  If a processing facility wants to increase line speeds, it may have to invest millions of dollars to install a faster evisceration line depending on the capability of their existing equipment.  If a poultry company decides to increase line speeds, it may also need to add additional lines in second processing.

With the increase in record keeping, microbiological testing, and carcass sorting, more employees may be necessary.  New employees may also be necessary on the evisceration line and in second processing if a facility elects to increase line speeds.  All employees require extensive training and must be kept current on all practices and procedures within the plant.

A company cannot simply flip on a switch to increase production and, as stated above, even if it could, market conditions would have to be such that increased production makes sense for that company.

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Address media inquiries to: Tom Super

Senior Vice President of Communications

[email protected] 202-443-4130