Before they reach your plate as drumsticks, wings and nuggets, chickens pass under the eye of federal inspectors, who most often stand in a spot on the production line looking for visible abnormalities or contaminations.
But it’s the unseen pathogens – salmonella and campylobacter, mostly – that are the real problem with poultry, causing sickness in tens of thousands of Americans each year.
That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking a change in the nearly 60-year-old rules governing inspections at chicken and turkey processing facilities. The proposal, the final version of which was released last week, will free inspectors from the production line, allowing them to concentrate on decreasing pathogens in the food supply, a move the USDA says will eliminate 5,000 foodborne illnesses a year.
But the proposal also cuts down significantly on the total number of federal inspectors, and hands over much of the oversight along the production line to the poultry companies themselves. That will certainly save taxpayer money, but the USDA has fallen short in showing that it will make food more safe.
That shouldn’t be the case. The USDA started pilot inspection programs in 1998 to test new inspection procedures. A proposal to extend the new techniques to all poultry processing facilities was sent to the White House in 2011, and those regulations were first made public in early 2012. So a significant amount of information is available on the efficacy of the proposed regulations.
But according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the USDA misused the data in concluding that the new rules are better at reducing illness caused by pathogens.
The GAO asked the USDA to analyze the data again, but it is unclear if a new analysis was used to reformulate the proposed rules, and, in any case, the 175,000 or so comments submitted by the public regarding the proposal were made based on the flawed analysis.
A lot is at stake. In the United States, about one in six people contract an illness from contaminated food every year, with the highest rates of infection among young children and the elderly.
The rate has decreased significantly from the early 1990s, but it has leveled off, having not changed in seven years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Moreover, the CDC estimates that for every reported case of illness from salmonella or campylobacter, about 30 go unreported.
And because of centralized processing, the impact of an outbreak can be far-reaching. Salmonella from Foster Farms in California, for instance, caused 634 reported cases of poisoning across 29 states and Puerto Rico.
The USDA says the new inspection rules will help prevent those kinds of outbreaks. But that seems like a dubious claim, considering there will be more than 700 fewer inspectors in poultry facilities, replaced by poultry company employees who may be more focused on speed than thoroughness.
The USDA is right to center inspectors more on problems with pathogens than aesthetics, but they must show the new rules are the right way to do it. The agency shouldn’t need another outbreak to prove that they’re not.