USDA accused of keeping final details of new poultry inspection program a secret


(Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post)

A member of Congress and several food and worker safety groups are calling for the USDA to publicly release a copy of a proposed rule that would dramatically change how chickens and turkeys are inspected in U.S. slaughterhouses.

The draft version of the final rule — which has been in the making for more than two years — was sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on Thursday for review, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture will not release a copy to the public.

USDA officials said in a prepared statement that it has taken into account concerns raised by a variety of groups, but that it will not discuss publicly how the rule may have been altered.

“Although we do not discuss the specifics of the rule under review, the draft rule has been significantly informed by the feedback we received from our stakeholders, as well as from our interagency partners such as the Department of Labor,” USDA said in a prepared statement.

The department said that under the new inspection system, pathogen testing will be increased along with other changes, which will result in the number of foodborne illnesses dropping by more than 5,000 annually.

An earlier version of the poultry rule was proposed Jan. 27, 2012, and was the subject of widespread criticism by civil rights, occupational health and food safety groups.

The top concerns were over a proposal to cut USDA inspectors by 40 percent, and another that would increase processing line speeds by more than 20 percent.

More than 175,000 comments were submitted during the public comment period, a majority of them opposed to the proposed inspection rule.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said that, because the USDA will not release the final draft version, it is unclear whether any of the concerns about worker and food safety have been addressed. She is calling for the new version of the rule to published, followed by a 120-day comment period and public meetings around the country.

“We need more transparency, and public health stakeholders need to receive due consideration,” DeLauro said in a prepared statement.

OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has 90 days to review the draft regulation. They may extend it on a one-time basis for 30 days. After the review, if it is approved by OMB, the rule would be published in the Federal Register and would be final.

In addition to DeLauro, Food & Water Watch and the Center for Progressive Reform — both nonprofit consumer advocacy groups — said USDA has indicated that the rule has been “significantly changed” and that as such it should be reopened for public review.

“It is not without precedent,” said Tony Corbo, a Food & Water Watch lobbyist. “They could do this.”

Added Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform: “By the time we see it, it will be law. They need to open it up, otherwise it will be too late to do anything about it.”

The National Chicken Council, an industry trade group, praised the USDA’s decision to send the rule to the White House. On Thursday, the NCC launched a Web site to defend the new inspection system, which can be found at www.ChickenInspectionFacts.com.

“I commend USDA for taking the next step in an effort to modernize the way the agency inspects chicken,” said NCC President Mike Brown. “In an effort to continue our progress towards reducing foodborne illnesses, we believe, along with food safety experts, that the poultry inspection system should be modernized and transitioned to a model that is more science and risk-based. Not only will this system build on our food safety progress, if fully implemented, it will create jobs.”

Criticism of the rule has been widespread. Last year, the Government Accountability Office, which serves as an investigative arm of Congress, said the USDA used incomplete and antiquated data to support claims that foodborne illnesses would decline under the new system. A USDA Inspector General audit last May was equally critical, saying that three pilot hog plants that were testing the new inspection model had some of the worst safety records in the nation.

In March, more than 100 groups sent a letter to President Obama and to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the agency to withdraw the rule.

In a separate letter that same month, 68 members of Congress sent a letter to Vilsack also asking that he withdraw the rule and start over to address a series of concerns by civil rights, occupational health and food safety groups, and unions.

In support of the rule, a group of 13 senators sent a letter to Vilsack in December urging him to move forward with the proposal.

Civil rights groups, including the NAACP, have repeatedly called for the USDA to eliminate a provision in the rule that would allow plants to accelerate processing lines from 140 to 175 birds per minute. Several studies have shown that more than 40 percent of workers have crippling disorders, including carpal tunnel syndrome, because of the rapid work pace in the plants.

Environmentalists worry that increased line speeds will mean production will increase, thus putting more fecal matter and chemicals from the plants into the environment.

Food safety groups say they are concerned because the last public version of the proposal called for a 40 percent reduction in the number of USDA inspectors in the plants. Those inspectors would be replaced with plant employees, paid by the industry. No training requirements for those employees were included in the last public version of the proposed rule.

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