Food safety legislation was introduced Thursday in the Senate that seeks to preserve current staffing levels of USDA inspectors in meat plants at the same time the agency promotes a new model that would cut the federal inspection force by as much as half.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), the bill's sponsor, said the measure also would ensure that each carcass in the nation’s poultry, beef and hog plants is checked by a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector before it is processed and sent to consumers.
In addition to safeguarding meat inspection, the bill would give the USDA the power to shutdown poultry plants that repeatedly turn out products that fail salmonella safety tests.
“As I cook dinner for my family most nights, I want to know what I am serving is safe for my children to eat,” Gillibrand said. “This legislation contains practical measures to ensure no American gambles with their health when purchasing poultry or meat products. Not only would we reduce foodborne illness, but we also strengthen our nation’s agriculture and food industry.”
A USDA spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.
Under a 15-year-old pilot program, USDA inspection staffs have been cut by about 40 percent in poultry plants and 50 percent in five hog plants and have been replaced with inspectors that are employed by the meat industry. The pilot program also allows processing lines speeds to be increased by about 25 percent in poultry plants and 20 percent in the hog plants.
The USDA is working on final regulations it plans to propose later this year that would allow all poultry plants to switch to this alternative inspection model. The agency will also complete a study of its hog pilot program by March with the hope of proposing regulations that would roll out the inspection model to all hog plants.
The program has been controversial, and Gillibrand’s bill would require that the USDA work with other federal agencies to determine what rates processing line speeds can move at while also ensuring the safety of plants workers and USDA employees who must hang, cut, sort and inspect carcasses.
“The bill preserves proper inspection staffing in meat and poultry facilities while empowering those inspectors with new enforcement tools to improve food safety,” said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group.