The Washington Post

New USDA poultry inspection procedures are based on bad data, government report says

Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not fully detail the rule-making process for the proposed poultry inspection program. The story has been clarified.

The USDA has used incomplete and antiquated data in support of its plan to extend new poultry inspection procedures to plants across the country, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office scheduled for public release on Wednesday.

As a result, there are “questions about the validity” of the USDA’s conclusions that the procedures, now used by a limited number of poultry plants under a pilot program, are more effective than the traditional approach at reducing pathogens such as salmonella, the GAO found.

The report was requested by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who previously expressed concerns about the pilot program because it allows plants to dramatically speed up processing lines and replace many USDA inspectors with poultry company employees. For decades, government poultry inspectors have been stationed along processing lines to identify contaminated and diseased carcasses.

GAO auditors found that the USDA, in analyzing whether the pilot inspection program improved plants’ efficiency, used data in part collected from plants more than 11 years ago and other data from a study that was more than 20 years old. The USDA has said its proposal aims to save money for taxpayers and consumers through greater efficiency.

The report also criticized the USDA for applying the data it collected from chicken plants to turkey plants.

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In addition, the GAO report faulted the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for failing to collect and analyze data about the effectiveness of inspections in a similar pilot program in pork plants.

The agency began pilot inspection programs in 1998 at chicken, turkey and pork slaughterhouses. The USDA proposed regulations that would allow the agency to expand the programs from the 29 pilot plants to most of the country’s 239 chicken and 96 turkey plants. The USDA submitted proposed regulations for a new poultry inspection program in December 2011 to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The office reviewed them, returned them to USDA the following month, and the proposed regulations were published on Jan. 27, 2012. The USDA plans to submit the proposed regulations for approval as a final rule later this year.

Gillibrand plans to send a letter Wednesday morning to OIRA Administrator Howard Shelanski, asking that the regulations be sidelined until more reliable data analysis is complete, according to an aide to the senator.

“This shows that the proposed rule is not formulated on a strong scientific basis and assumptions made in the proposed rule may not be correct,” Gillibrand wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post, adding that she wants to “ensure the significant flaws in USDA FSIS’s proposed rule can be addressed before further action is taken.”

The GAO’s recommendations do not call for the rulemaking process to start over. Rather, the agency faulted the USDA for collecting more than 175,000 public comments based on the flawed and incomplete data analysis. It recommended that the USDA “clearly disclose to the public limitations in the information it relied on for the proposed rule to modernize poultry slaughter inspections.”

The GAO made a stronger recommendation for the pork pilot program, saying that the USDA needs to “collect and analyze information to determine if the young hog pilot project is meeting its purpose” before publishing the proposed regulations.

In a written response, Elisabeth Hagen, the undersecretary for food safety, agreed with the GAO’s recommendations and said the USDA will follow them. Hagen also said that more data analysis is being done for the poultry pilot program and that it will soon be updated in the proposed rules.

The GAO said in its report that the USDA did not share the new information, so it was not possible to determine whether the fresh analysis would address concerns raised by the audit.

Kimberly Kindy is a national investigative reporter at The Washington Post.

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