Letting the Fox Guard the Henhouse -- Literally

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) made the front page of The New York Times this week for its proposal to change the way chickens and other poultry are inspected in processing plants before they are sent to supermarkets and butcher shops all across the country. In January, the agency published a controversial new proposal that would shift responsibility for inspections away from agency inspectors and allow employees of the slaughtering plants to judge their own handiwork. We’re not the only ones who think asking chicken producers to police themselves might be a bad idea.

Currently, federal inspectors pull chickens and other poultry that look contaminated or diseased from the production line to ensure they don’t enter the food chain. If this responsibility shifts to employees in a plant, the employees would face pressure to get as many chickens and turkeys as possible through production and shipped out to the public. We already have regular salmonella outbreaks. This seems like a recipe for more.

Industry has been clamoring for this type of self-regulation for quite some time, and Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), cited this proposed change as an example of a rule that would produce benefits and save industry lots of money. So what are the “benefits”?

All of the benefits of this proposal come from saving the poultry industry and FSIS money. Under the new system, there will be fewer visual inspections of poultry, so FSIS will employ fewer inspectors. FSIS estimates that it will save between $85 million and $95 million over the next three years, and the poultry companies estimate that they will save about $250 million. This is because when inspectors aren’t examining each poultry carcass, the poultry processors can speed up the production line.

But where are the health and safety benefits to Americans? Historically, this type of industry self-regulation always results in more profits for business and less protection for consumers. Indeed, it was the failure of industry self-regulation generally that prompted Congress to adopt many of the health, safety, and consumer protections that Americans value and have come to rely on. Although the FSIS report proposing the rule claims it will produce modest benefits, FSIS admits there is a “small possibility” that the revised inspection procedures will increase the incidence of foodborne illness.

We do know that the change is likely to reduce the safety of workers in the poultry plants – who already work in cold, difficult environments. The current inspection system permits line speeds of up to 91 chickens per minute. If the proposal is adopted, line speeds could be increased to 175 chickens per minute. 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, and we can expect more fingers lost and more cuts and other accidents. The cost-benefit analysis of the proposed rule change did not take these costs into account.

The proposed rule will also impose significant costs on federal poultry inspectors (another cost not included in the cost-benefit analysis). The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) estimates that 1,000 FSIS inspectors will lose their jobs under the proposal. These are good, middle-class jobs; when these families lose a breadwinner, the communities in which they live also feel the loss of their income and buying power.

The mission of FSIS is to ensure the safety of the American food supply. OIRA needs to more realistically assess whether this rule would jeopardize consumer health, and when assessing the costs and benefits of production changes, it needs to include the potential costs to the American workers involved in processing poultry (both plant workers and inspectors).

Over 172 million chickens were sold in the U.S. in 2010. The next time people get sick from tainted chicken, the public is going to ask how and why the bad birds entered the food chain. Touting the cost savings and consequent increase in profits for poultry producers is unlikely to impress families hit with expensive medical bills from food poisoning.

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