Obama Administration Pushes to Privatize Poultry Inspection

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 wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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