By NICOLE GAUDIANO, Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Members of the public have until Tuesday to comment on a controversial proposal to change the way poultry and turkey processing plants are inspected.

The proposal by federal agriculture officials would give more responsibilities to industry employees.

Officials want to free up government inspectors from activities they say are unrelated to food safety so they can focus on detecting food-borne pathogens, like Salmonella and Campylobacter. The proposal would increase food safety while saving taxpayers money and lowering production costs for the industry, which would be allowed to increase assembly line speeds, according to the Agriculture Department.

"The poultry modernization proposal will help prevent an estimated 5,200 illnesses," Alfred Almanza, the department's food safety and inspection service administrator, wrote in an April 13 blog post. "How? By focusing our most valuable resources, our front-line inspectors, on what matters."

Consumer groups say the proposal threatens the health and safety of the country's food supply and of poultry workers working on faster assembly lines. Relinquishing responsibilities to poultry companies is like "asking the fox to guard the hen house," said Robert Weissman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

"The big chicken producers cannot be trusted to monitor the safety of their lines any more than the Wall Street firms can be trusted to check their greed and behave responsibly on their own," he said. "Increased line speeds and privatized inspection will mean dirtier chicken, more food safety problems and much worsened workplace conditions involving more worker injuries."

The Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service currently assigns up to four inspectors per processing line at the largest plants to help company employees examine and sort carcasses for visual defects, including feces, bruises and feathers. Assembly line speeds of up to 140 birds per minute are permitted.

Under the proposed rule, plant employees would be required to perform those sorting duties before presenting carcasses to one government inspector for carcass-by-carcass inspections later in the processing line.

The change would allow federal inspectors to move away from what the agency considers "quality control" functions to focus on greater risks to food safety, according to the agency.

Freed-up inspectors would perform tasks such as pathogen sampling and would verify that plants are maintaining sanitary conditions and controlling food safety hazards at critical points in the production process.

The rule would allow line speeds up to 175 birds per minute, and would require poultry plants to ensure their procedures prevent contamination.

Delaware Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee said he views the proposal as an effort to perform more sophisticated, efficient inspections. He doesn't think it would compromise food safety inspections.

"It allows the company to do some of the hands-on inspection at different places in the plant, but the USDA has total control still and they will have an inspector that looks at every bird at the end of the line," Kee said. "The USDA presence is still quite strong and the USDA presence can and does control the speed of the line."

The rule would not be mandatory, but agriculture officials expect more than 200 poultry operations would participate. About 2,500 Food Safety and Inspection Service employees would be affected. About 1,500 workers would receive upgraded positions and pay while up to 940 would be phased out over a two- to three-year period.

The agency expects to save more than $90 million over three years and lower production costs for the industry by at least $256.6 million per year. Increased line speeds would better position poultry companies to respond to increases in demand for chicken if they choose to participate, said Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council.

The proposal responds to President Barack Obama's January 2011 executive order asking agencies to review and change existing rules that may be outdated, burdensome or ineffective. It would expand on a pilot program, operating at 20 plants since 1999, that the agency says had good results.

"The data is clear that in these plants, the poultry produced has lower rates of Salmonella, a pathogen that sickens more than 1 million people in the U.S. every year," Almanza wrote. "These plants also maintain superior performance on removing the visual and quality defects that don't make people sick."

Super said the pilot program demonstrates that chicken plants are capable of producing safe poultry products by operating at increased line speeds.

"This is not something that was cooked up overnight," Super said. "The plants in this pilot project have a tremendous record in terms of food safety and worker safety."

But the consumer group Food & Water Watch says an analysis of the pilot project's inspection documents -- which the group obtained under the Freedom of Information Act -- shows defects are routinely missed when inspection tasks are performed by company employees rather than government inspectors. Of 229 non-compliance records filed from March to August 2011, 90 percent were for visible fecal contamination missed by company employees.

The Agriculture Department says the rule would require all poultry slaughter establishments to develop written procedures to ensure carcasses visibly contaminated with feces do not enter the tank where chickens are chilled.

"USDA inspectors receive extensive training to protect public health in poultry facilities, but there is no similar requirement for company employees to receive training before they assume these inspection responsibilities in the proposed privatized inspection system," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a March statement.

Federal inspectors who worked at plants participating in the pilot projects provided affidavits in April to the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection and advocacy organization. The inspectors said the new inspection system harmed their ability to ensure food safety.

"I've seen sorters attempt to slow down or stop the line to move birds to the reprocessing line, only to be rebuked by their supervisors," one whistleblower wrote. "In my plant, some of the sorters really try to look at all of the birds. Others, though, seem not to care or have given up on doing their job."

Perdue Farms, headquartered in Salisbury, Md., will evaluate the final rule before deciding whether to participate, according to company spokeswoman Julie DeYoung. But she said it "makes sense" to move from visual inspections to one focusing on science-based prevention of food-borne pathogens.

Kee said companies have a vested interest in selling clean and safe products, and their inspections are often more rigorous and frequent than the USDA requires.

"They are not taking shortcuts in this area because if they do, they're wreaking havoc with their customers and with their reputation," he said. "They just have to do it right and I'm satisfied that they are doing it right."

Members of the public can submit a comment by going to:!searchResults;rpp=25;po=0;s=FSIS-2011-0012.


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