WASHINGTON – As part of President Barack Obama’s push to streamline regulations on businesses, the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to let chicken slaughterhouses run production lines faster and with fewer federal inspectors, angering food safety advocates and poultry plant workers.
Under the proposal, production lines would be allowed to move 25 percent faster, while the government would cut by as much as 75 percent the number of line inspectors eyeing chicken bodies for defects before the carcasses are packaged for consumption.
The quicker conveyor belts also raise the prospects that plant workers who hang carcasses, clean, trim and cut chickens at rapid speeds will be prone to more injuries as the pace is ratcheted up, labor groups said.
The USDA estimated that the proposal would eliminate as many as 800 inspector positions and save the federal government $90 million over three years. The department closed public comments on its proposed rules last week and could adopt them or revised ones by this fall.
The proposed rules mark a major policy shift. They are based on a 13-year pilot program that tested whether public safety would be improved by giving plant employees a bigger role – and federal inspectors a lesser one – in sorting good chickens from bad.
“We would be turning over what are essentially quality sorting jobs to people employed by the company,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety. “And that’s an appropriate transfer of responsibility.”
But Tony Corbo, at the health advocacy group Food and Water Watch, calls it “a privatization of poultry inspection” because plant employees would be responsible for spotting and removing defective chickens. Consumer advocates said the rising rates of salmonella infection in recent years should give pause to any plans to cut the number of federal inspectors at poultry plants.
The proposal has sparked a flood of letters from concerned consumers and public health advocates, many of them urging slower, more deliberate inspections.
But in a tough re-election fight, Obama has urged his departments to help companies by ditching overly burdensome and outdated regulations.