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Fewer USDA Inspectors in Poultry Plants: Higher Slaughter Numbers … For Real

Shouldn’t we be able to trust the USDA to monitor our poultry? Once again the question up front is, “Shouldn’t we be able to trust … ?” That’s the frustrating part about any examination into the safety of food in the marketplace. This question, “Shouldn’t we be able to trust [fill in the blank].” doesn’t belong in the discussion.

The USDA is proposing big changes in the poultry inspection process in the coming month. They are proposing that the poultry industry goes from being inspected by USDA inspectors to being industry “self-inspected” with the expectation of saving $85 million over three years and laying off 1,000 government inspectors. The duties would be turned over to internal company monitors who will monitor their own poultry processing lines across the USA. This defies good common sense and from a food safety view does not sound like a smart way of protecting the public interest.

Isn’t it ironic, that at the same time, the USDA is proposing these cutbacks in employees and transferring the inspection process to a self-monitoring system that the poultry companies are proposing to speed up the killing process?  Poultry companies are currently killing 140 birds per minute with four USDA inspectors’ supervision on each line. They are proposing to up the number to 170 per minute with only one USDA inspector per line. That means one USDA inspector will be expected to supervise 170 birds per minute versus the going rate now of one inspector to supervise 35 birds per minute. The numbers don’t add up on the side of good food safety practices.

There is no proposal for more intensive bacterial testing on site before being processed birds leave for distribution.

Chicken is the most popular meat bought here in the United States with consumers eating an average of 84 pounds of chicken a year. Poultry is most known for the foodborne illness, Salmonella. At the time of writing this article, if you Google salmonella, one can find there are several salmonella outbreaks in the news, including pet food, cucumbers, queso fresco and poultry just to name a few.

Salmonella Serotype Enteridis infection is the most commonly contracted form of salmonella and is predominately found on eggs and poultry. The symptoms as with most foodborne illness include: fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Symptoms usually start 12-72 hours after ingestion and can last usually 4-7 days.  According to the Center of Disease Control overview in 2011, Salmonella is estimated to cause more than 1.2 million illnesses and 23,000 hospitalizations resulting in about 450 deaths each year. It is suspected the numbers of illnesses to be much higher as there are many who don’t go to the doctor when ill and recover with no medical attention.

How does salmonella get onto eggs and poultry? Very simply, it is transmitted through the feces of infected birds. The method used in raising large numbers of birds is that there are large numbers contained in a small space.  If you’ve ever wondered how our plants get contaminated with salmonella, it’s through the process of irrigating a field with tainted animal waste water, thus contaminating the plants. Contamination can also occur in the plants with contaminated equipment: i.e. knives, cutting boards, workers’ hands, etc.

Sometimes writing these food safety articles just raises more frustrating questions: Here’s my question regarding the logic used here, “How is poultry going to be safer with less supervision and faster kill time?”

Here’s the point as usual, “money talks.” The USDA is proposing they will save $85 million with these proposed changes, but the USDA is also projecting that the poultry industry stands to save $256 million a year in production costs!

What can we do as consumers if you don’t agree with this? Contact the USDA if you object. You can call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at: 888-674-6854 or send an email to: mphotline.fsis@usda.gov

About the Author

Juliet Bodinetz is executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training Solutions and has over 25 years industry and training experience. Her team of instructors’ specialty is food safety, alcohol training and ServSafe training in English or in Spanish and writing HACCP Plans in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. area. www.bilingualhospitality.com, juliet@bilingualhospitality.com or 443-838-7561. For latest food safety tips: Like on Facebook or Twitter: @BHTS

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