BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Proposed changes to poultry slaughter inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) might lead to potentially more risky chicken meat, federal poultry inspectors in north Alabama warn.
The state is the third largest producer of chicken meat in the United States, with more than one billion chickens being produced on an annual basis. Alabama poultry inspectors are concerned that if the changes, known as HIMP, are approved, this could mean reduced control over the quality of the meat. The USDA proposes that the current number of four federal inspectors who examine poultry carcasses on the conveyor belts is cut to just one, while the maximum allowed speed for the conveyor belts should be increased to 175 birds per minute. In addition, changes will also affect the way processing companies test for bacteria, as the USDA plans to introduce new guidelines.
The main purpose of introducing HIMP is ensuring safety and reducing costs. According to advocates of the changes, they would not only make the entire process cheaper for both poultry processing companies and consumers, but would also make products safer because of increased bacteria testing. The USDA argues that inspectors are currently spending too much time examining the dead birds for cosmetic flaws, such as bruises and bumps, and that this part of the examination could be handed over to the companies themselves. The department has still not set a time frame within which the changes would be put in place nationwide, but the new guidelines have been tested at 20 plants in different states, including four in Alabama, the Gadsden Times reported.
Earlier this year Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary, said that improvements to the inspection system would lead to better protection of public health, reduce spending and make inspections more efficient. The focus of inspectors'' activity will be shifted onto testing for foodborne illness risks in order to promote food safety, he explained. The USDA estimates that the changes will save taxpayers more than $90 million over a three-year period and bring production costs down by at least $256.6 million per year.
However, inspectors who have seen the proposed changes in action at the processing plants in Alabama claim that a fourfold reduction of the number of inspectors involved in the monitoring cannot mean safer products. On the contrary — conveyor belts move at a rate of three birds per second and one inspector will be required to test birds for diseases in a third of a second, Phyllis McKelvey, a retired federal inspector from Albertville, told the Gadsden Times.
Concerns have also been raised by consumer rights group Food & Water Watch, which warned in a statement that delegating monitoring duties to processing plant employees might prove risky, as they have not been trained to protect public health the way USDA inspectors have. Food & Water Watch recently researched a pilot program and found an alarming amount of poultry contaminated with feces, bile and feathers, which inspection had overlooked, the statement said.