A report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reinforces health and safety advocates’ concerns about proposed changes to poultry inspection procedures. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a controversial proposed rule to shift responsibility for inspections away from agency inspectors to employees of the slaughter and processing plants. Despite calls to address serious food and worker safety concerns, the agency plans to finalize the rule this year. GAO’s new report identifies limitations in the data used to justify the rule and casts further doubt on USDA’s decision to advance a fatally flawed proposal.

After publishing the proposed rule in January 2012, USDA received thousands of comments from public health advocates and safety experts opposing the rule. The Center for Effective Government joined a drove of consumer and public interest groups in urging USDA to withdraw the rule until it had sufficiently examined and resolved concerns about food and worker safety.

The rule is based on a pilot program USDA initiated in 1998, known as HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), that has serious shortcomings. Under the proposed new system, there would be fewer federal inspectors at each poultry plant and fewer visual inspections of chicken carcasses, allowing plants to speed up production lines. The rule would allow increased line speeds of up to 175 chickens per minute, leaving employees only 1/3 of a second to examine each carcass.

FSIS supported the proposed rule with an evaluation of the pilot project that it released in 2011. The evaluation, and the pilot program itself, have recognized weaknesses. GAO’s report noted concerns that standardized training for plant personnel was not required in the pilot program and “that faster line speeds allowed under the pilot projects raise concerns about food safety and worker safety.” The GAO also raised “questions about the validity” of FSIS’ conclusion that the new inspection system would provide equal, if not better, levels of consumer protection. Importantly, FSIS based its conclusion about the performance of the project on “snapshots of data” from just two, two-year periods, even though it had collected more than ten years’ worth of data.

GAO recommended that USDA clearly disclose the limitations in the information it relied on for the rule.

FSIS concurred with the recommendation, responding that it updated the analyses, and the results continue to support moving forward with a final rule. The final rule will include updated analyses to “facilitate public understanding of the information used to support the rulemaking,” but this fails to give the public a chance to comment on supposed improvements to flawed data and impact analyses. And, as GAO noted, FSIS will not complete another comprehensive evaluation of the pilot program before it issues a final rule because it viewed its incomplete report as sufficient to inform the rulemaking.

FSIS has also failed to adequately address worker safety concerns. Poultry workers already suffer an alarming rate of injuries and illnesses – due to the sharp tools used on the line, dangerous machinery, and the repetitive nature of their jobs. These risks multiply as the production line speeds up, but FSIS did not consult the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) early on in the rulemaking process to adequately consider these risks.

Worker safety advocates heavily criticized this lack of consideration. FSIS later reached out to OSHA and has promised to look at studies on worker safety concerns, but it has not done enough to ensure that the final rule will sufficiently protect workers.

A group of worker safety and civil rights organizations recently petitioned agencies to better protect workers in poultry and meatpacking plants, again calling on USDA to engage in thorough interagency consultation about worker safety before implementing the proposed rule. The petition also urged OSHA to limit work speeds on processing lines.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who requested the investigation, said the report “shows that the proposed rule is not formulated on a strong scientific basis and assumptions made in the proposed rule may not be correct,” The Washington Post reported. According to the Post, she wants to “ensure the significant flaws in USDA FSIS’s proposed rule can be addressed before further action is taken” and plans to ask Howard Shelanski, Administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), to table the rule until more reliable data analysis is complete.

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