U.S. Sen. Jon Tester wrote to the USDA secretary last week, asking that he postpone plans to finalize a new poultry inspection program, saying to move forward now is “misguided and premature.”

Tester (D-Mont.) also asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to suspend agreements with foreign countries that are now allowed to use the alternative inspection program for meat they import into the United States. Millions of pounds of contaminated meat from plants using the system were either recalled or rejected by USDA inspectors over the past two years.

The program, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based Inspection Models Project, is already operating as a pilot in 20 chicken plants, four 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 Nov. 7 letter was prompted by a series of Washington Post articles on HIMP and by small meat processors in Tester’s district who believe the new inspection system favors large global meat processors over smaller domestic plants.

Tester, who owns a small farm that produces a variety of organic grains, has not yet received a response from Vilsack.

In response to The Post’s request for comment, the USDA issued the following statement: “The U.S. food supply is among the safest in the world, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service is dedicated to maintaining that status.”

In his letter, Tester cited a recent Government Accountability Office report  that raised questions about the department’s assessment of the HIMP program in poultry plants and its success with decreasing pathogens, like salmonella and campylobacter.

“Without adequate scientific analysis to ensure the new process improves the safety of poultry slaughter and evisceration plants, it is premature to propose a rule that would standardize these practices across all plants,” the letter read. “USDA should delay the proposed rules and reevaluate the pilot on food safety and market competition.”

In addition to asking that the HIMP rule be postponed until the USDA does further study, Tester asked that the department consider reinstating a ban it recently lifted that will allow four Chinese processing plants to make poultry products for the U.S. market, using cooked poultry from the United States. However, Congress, not the USDA, lifted the ban in 2009.

In August, members of Congress and food safety groups criticized the USDA when it said, based on recent inspections of four poultry plants in China, that it would allow the plants to export cooked poultry products from birds raised in the United States and Canada.  The USDA found that the Chinese plants operated in a manner that was equivalent or comparable to plants in the United States.

Tester said the department should also mandate that all products from China be clearly labeled as such.

“Because country of origin labeling is not required on cooked and processed meat, American consumers will not know where their chicken was processed, depriving consumers of a powerful market tool – information,” Tester wrote.