Four agriculture committee members seek timeline on poultry inspection proposal

Four members of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture are among the latest in Congress to write to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack regarding a proposal to change how safety inspections are done in poultry plants.

(Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko) (Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko)

The lawmakers, including committee chairman Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking member Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), support the proposed system. They asked in the letter, which was sent to Vilsack on Friday, when the agency plans to send a final version of the proposed rule to the administration.  They also asked for a timeline for when the new system would roll out to plants nationwide.

Catherine Cochran, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, said the department “cannot predict a timeline” for when the proposed rule will be sent to the administration, nor could the department say when it might be implemented. The program, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based Inspection Models Project, is already operating as a pilot in 20 chicken plants, five turkey plants and five hog plants in the United States.

USDA officials say they are proposing the new system to improve food safety and increase efficiency in plants. USDA inspectors say they believe food safety will be compromised because processing line speeds are allowed to increase by 25 percent in poultry plants and 30 percent in hog plants. Also, about 40 percent of government inspectors will be replaced by employees of the poultry and meat plants. Poultry is cleaned and inspected on the lines.

The letter was also signed by Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), who founded and serves as co-chair of the Congressional Chicken Caucus, and Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), who is a member of the caucus. The caucus serves as a forum for chicken producers, processors, consumers and retailers to provide input to members of Congress.

In the letter, the lawmakers pointed to the USDA’s food safety claims, contained in a draft proposal of the rule, which estimated that the new system would save 5,000 lives by reducing foodborne illnesses. However, in a report in September, the Government Accountability Office questioned the validity of the USDA’s findings, saying the department’s analysis was based on incomplete and antiquated data.

Citing the GAO’s findings, the Safe Food Coalition sent its own letter to Vilsack on Nov. 15, asking that the January agenda for the department’s National Advisory Committee for Meat and Poultry inspection include time to talk about the proposed poultry inspection system. Members of both the coalition and the committee include the Center for Foodborne Illnesses Research and Prevention, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America and STOP Foodborne Illness.

Kimberly Kindy is a government accountability reporter at The Washington Post.

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