One of the nation’s leading consumer-advocacy groups and the Federal union that represents U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Inspectors have warned that a push to privatize and accelerate poultry-inspection lines would increase the likelihood that contaminated product would reach consumers.
Both the union and the advocacy group are also concerned about the USDA’s decision to grant three new poultry-slaughter facilities in the People’s Republic of China equivalent status to facilities operating under the food-safety system here.
Beef About the Chicken?
Last year, with great fanfare U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the Trump Administration had opened U.S. markets to Chinese chicken imports in exchange for American beef-producers getting back into the Chinese market after being banned since 2003 following the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in Washington State.
Americans consume on average 91 pounds of chicken a year, which since 1990 has eclipsed beef consumption. It is a hugely competitive multi-billion-dollar global export business, with several countries vying to increase their market share. U.S. poultry exports are worth more than $3 billion annually.
The American Federation of Government Employees National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals represents 6,300 USDA employees in the Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). The union has teamed up with Food and Water Watch, an environmental and consumer-advocacy non-profit, in a campaign to raise awareness about the Chinese imports and what they believe is the degrading of the USDA’s poultry-inspection system.
Dog, Baby-Food Woes
Stan Painter, chairman of the AFGE’s National Joint Council of Food Inspection Local Unions, said in a phone interview that several high-profile cases involving massive recalls of adulterated pet and human food products from China should inform American consumers’ outlook on Chinese chicken.
“How could we not be concerned with granting China this regulatory equivalency when we know what their track record has been with baby formula for their own children?” Mr. Painter said.
“We saw the undercover video shot of them throwing yellow paint to color prescription medicine. But since they buy so much of our Treasury debt, how do we tell them we won’t accept their food?”
As the Trump Administration steps up its efforts to help China serve the American market, the USDA has moved ahead with expanding pilot programs that go back to the Clinton Administration to help American producers make the inspection process more efficient in a way that it insists does not put American consumers at risk.
Rejects Getting Too Far?
But in an Aug. 8 letter to Carmen Rottenberg, the Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch warned that the agency’s New Poultry Inspection System, which replaced union inspectors with company sorters, was resulting in “a high number of defective carcasses” making it through to USDA inspectors.
The non-profit and the AGFE said that raised the risk not only of tainted meat making it to market, but that the entire production line would be contaminated. The defects documented by the union Inspectors but missed by the sorters included “visible fecal contamination on the carcass, scabs, burns, inflammatory-process conditions, tumor, exudate (pus), sores and breast blisters,” wrote Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch.
Moreover, she maintained that rather than hold the plant managers and owners responsible for the contaminated meat making it through, the supervisors were taking to task the union Inspectors for “impeding production by stopping the line when necessary.”
Last Line of Defense
“When the USDA launched this new privatized inspection system, it did not require company employees to receive additional training before getting responsibility for sorting out potentially unsafe meat,” said Ms. Hauter. “But now we are hearing from USDA inspectors that company employees in some plants miss so many defective carcasses that the USDA inspectors at the end of the line have to stop to make sure they don’t reach consumers.”
“I have been an inspector for over 30 years, and inspection has deteriorated because FSIS management has permitted it to do so,” Mr. Painter said. “We are rapidly heading backwards to ‘The Jungle’ of 1906.”
“The Jungle” was a novel written by Upton Sinclair, a social activist and journalist, which chronicled the hardships experienced by immigrants who worked in the horrendous conditions of the era’s meatpacking industry, which passed along diseased and rotten meat to the public without fear of serious penalties. Mr. Sinclair’s exposé was widely credited for prompting President Theodore Roosevelt to introduce and sign into law the 1906 Meat Inspection Act.
According to the union and Food and Water Watch, the plants with the worst track records were part of the earlier pilot program for privatized inspection which permitted the product lines to operate at the speed of 175 birds per minute. They say the USDA is open to considering expanding the number of plants that can operate at that speed.
“It is no surprise that these problems have surfaced in plants that were part of the original pilot program for privatized inspection, which lets the plants run at elevated line speeds,” said Ms. Hauter. “Rather than trying to blame inspectors for protecting consumers, USDA needs to figure out what is going wrong with company self-inspection in these plants.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, salmonella bacteria is the most-frequently-reported cause of food-borne illness linked to poultry and meat consumption. “Strains that cause no symptoms in animals can make people sick, and vice versa,” according to a USDA fact sheet. “If present in food, it does not usually affect the taste, smell, or appearance of the food. The bacteria live in the intestinal tracts of infected animals and humans.”
Salmonella originating from all food sources causes an estimated 1.4 million bouts of illness and more than 400 deaths here in the U.S. annually. Symptoms can include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever lasting 8 to 72 hours after the contaminated food was consumed. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea, and vomiting.
Can Be Fatal
In rare cases, salmonella infections can be fatal, especially among infants, young children, pregnant women, their unborn babies, and older adults. Also at risk from such exposure would be anyone with weakened immune systems; those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, and transplant patients.
According to a spokesperson with the Food Safety Inspection Service, the agency has been totally transparent in its efforts to improve the inspection process, which includes more effectively deploying the Inspector workforce.
“In August 2014, FSIS published the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) final rule modernizing poultry-slaughter inspection,” the NSIS said in a statement in response to this newspaper’s query. “NPIS is an updated science-based inspection system that positions food-safety inspectors throughout poultry facilities in a smarter way…Establishments have the option to use NPIS or maintain their current inspection system.”
It continued, “FSIS continues to work to staff establishments that do not use NPIS; the number of FSIS inspectors at these establishments does not change. FSIS estimates that NPIS prevents up to 5,000 food-borne illnesses each year.”
The agency said its final rule set the maximum poultry-line speed at 140 birds per minute and not 175, as proposed. But it “continues to consider higher line speeds…at establishments that are capable of consistently producing safe, wholesome, and unadulterated product and are meeting pathogen reduction and other performance standards.”
The FSIS emphasized that in publishing its final Poultry Slaughter Risk Assessment, its findings were scientifically peer-reviewed and that its compliance program permitted “FSIS to collect and analyze unannounced Salmonella sample sets in poultry-slaughter establishments to detect whether these establishments are meeting the pathogen-reduction performance standards.”
And the agency said its inspectors were conducting “more offline food-safety tasks that place inspectors in areas of the production process where they can perform verification tasks that have direct impact on, and are the most important to ensure food safety,” with FSIS inspectors still fully empowered “to slow and stop the line to ensure food safety and inspection are achieved.”
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