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Working In These Times

Friday, Apr 6, 2012, 1:00 pm

Obama Administration Pushes to Privatize Poultry Inspection

BY Mike Elk

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Last Monday, members of American Federation of Government Employees union and food safety advocates rallied outside of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protest a plan that they argue would essentially privatize poultry inspection. The USDA wants to expand a pilot program that currently allows 20 chicken slaughterhouses and five turkey slaughter houses to employ their own meat inspectors instead of using independently funded federal government inspectors.

The HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) expansion plan proposed by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack would expand the pilot program to 200 slaughterhouses, allowing companies to employ their own poultry inspectors. Chairman of the National Joint Council of AFGE Food Inspection Council Chair Stan Painter says that the proposed program could lead to the elimination of 1,000 USDA poultry inspection jobs. The USDA has claimed (PDF) that the proposed change could save inspectors $95 million during its first three years and would save the poultry industry about $250 million.

“This new inspection system for poultry slaughter plants is another example of attacks on everyday working people while billionaires and corporations are getting tax breaks. And this time, it’s putting our kids and families at risk while taking jobs away from people we count on. It’s shocking,” AFL-CIO Online Mobilization Director Manny Herrmann wrote in an e-mail petition.

The USDA, though, claims that the proposed program would help save money and improve public health. The agency argues that there is less need for inspecting the carcass of the chicken as they are going down the line in a poultry house and more need to test them at the end of the line, in terms of bacterial testing. It claims that the new inspection model could prevent 5,200 food related illness every year. 

“It’s primarily a public health thing, and, by the way, it reduces spending,” deputy undersecretary of agriculture for food safety Brian Ronholm told The Washington Post. “There aren’t many opportunities an administration gets to achieve both goals.” 

“It’s really fraud for the industry,” says Erin Kessler of the Food Integrity Campaign at the Government Accountability Project. “In the new program there is only [carcass] inspection at the end of the production line and they discourage stopping the production line.  Under the proposed program, the inspector can see only see the back of the bird and not the front of the bird where a lot of fecal material lies. If there is fecal matter on the chicken and it goes out to folks, it can increase the chances of e. coli outbreak.”

In affidavits obtained by the Government Accountability Project, several federal food inspectors  complained about seeing company employed food inspectors already in the pilot program being reprimanded for removing diseased chicken carcasses from the line. Inspectors also worry about the program allowing poultry producers to dramatically speed up the number of chickens that must be inspected.

“The way they are going to operate this program, there will be two people trying to look through 182 chickens—that’s 91 chickens a minute per person. It’s not humanly possible,” says Painter, who is based in Crossville, Ala.

Painter, who is AFGE Food Inspection Council Chair, is surprised the Obama administration would push this proposal. “This pilot program started under Clinton. Unless we win the fight, federal poultry inspection is going to end under Obama. We pretty much expected it to happen under Bush. We thought okay it's not going to happen. Personally, I did not expect this out of Obama,” says Painter.

The rule is currently proposed and there is a public comment on it open until April 26th.  A number of groups such as the AFL-CIO, AFGE, and the popular blog site Daily Kos have launched campaigns to stop Obama’s USDA from implementing the program.

“If there is not a public outcry to stop this, 5,200 people will be affected. The agency says 5,200 people won't get sick because of this process. I am of the other opinion. The number 5,200 is probably correct, but it will probably be 5200 people get sick,” says Painter.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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