Playing chicken with food safety?
• Use workers in chicken and turkey plants to replace all but one federal inspector on the conveyor belt, where bad birds are removed from the production line.
• Let those plants decide how much training their workers receive in identifying diseased or defected birds.
• Enable plants to speed up their slaughter lines so that the sole federal inspector, stationed at the end of the line, would be required to view up to 175 birds per minute.
• Let poultry plants decide what dangerous bacteria they test carcasses for and how often they test, and no longer require plants to test for E. coli.
ATLANTA — One-third of a second.
That's how long a federal inspector will have to examine slaughtered chickens for contaminants and disease under new rules proposed by the federal government.
The proposal would speed up production lines as much as 25 percent. It also would pull most federal inspectors off the lines and replace them with plant workers.
The US Department of Agriculture says its proposal is a win-win-win that modernizes food inspection while saving money for taxpayers and the poultry industry.
The nation's most recognized food safety and consumer groups, however, say the plan would leave gaping holes in oversight that will endanger the nation's food supply, not to mention create a conflict of interest for poultry plants. They warn that Americans, who eat about 80 pounds of poultry a year, will be at greater risk of getting a side serving of fecal contamination or cancerous tumors with their chicken.
"I went out and bought a food processor so we could make more vegetarian meals," said Felicia Nestor, a food safety advocate and a consultant with the Government Accountability Project. "If the changes go into effect, my husband and I will no longer buy chicken." The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees poultry plants, believes the changes would "ensure and even enhance the safety of the poultry supply by focusing our inspectors' efforts on activities more directly tied to improving food safety," FSIS spokesman Dirk Fillpot said in a statement.
The agency says it wants inspectors to focus on issues that pose the greatest health risks to the public.
Georgia produces more chickens for meat consumption — 1.3 billion a year — than any other state, so the USDA's proposed changes are critically important here. The agency has not said when it will make its final decision on the proposal. The new system would be voluntary, though FSIS expects all but the smallest poultry plants to opt in. Advocates say that's because the other option would prohibit those plants from remaining competitive in the industry. The government says the changes will save taxpayers more than $90 million over three years.
But the big winner will be the poultry industry, which will save at least $256 million a year in production costs, the USDA has projected.