WASHINGTON - As part of President Barack Obama's push to streamline regulations on businesses, the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to let chicken slaughterhouses run production lines faster and with fewer federal inspectors, angering food safety advocates and poultry plant workers.
Under the proposal, production lines would be allowed to move 25 percent faster, while the government would cut by as much as 75 percent the number of line inspectors eyeing chicken bodies for defects before the carcasses are packaged for consumption.
The quicker conveyor belts also raise the prospects that plant workers who hang carcasses, clean, trim and cut chickens at rapid speeds will be prone to more injuries as the pace is ratcheted up, labor groups said.
The USDA estimated that the proposal would eliminate as many as 800 inspector positions and save the federal government $90 million over three years. The department closed public comments on its proposed rules last week and could adopt them or revised ones by this fall.
The proposed rules mark a major policy shift. They are based on a 13-year pilot program that tested whether public safety would be improved by giving plant employees a bigger role _ and federal inspectors a lesser one _ in sorting good chickens from bad.
"We would be turning over what are essentially quality sorting jobs to people employed by the company," said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety. "And that's an appropriate transfer of responsibility."
But Tony Corbo, at the health advocacy group Food and Water Watch, calls it "a privatization of poultry inspection" because plant employees would be responsible for spotting and removing defective chickens. Consumer advocates said the rising rates of salmonella infection in recent years should give pause to any plans to cut the number of federal inspectors at poultry plants.
The dispute highlights the competing interests facing the Obama administration as pressure for fiscal austerity and pro-business policies collide with concerns about the role of government in protecting public health and worker safety.
"It's this perfect storm that allows USDA to lax up on the amount of scrutiny they give these plants," said Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign for the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group. "It's beyond safety. It's an integrity issue."
The proposal has sparked a flood of letters from concerned consumers and public health advocates, many of them urging slower, more deliberate inspections.
But in a tough re-election fight, Obama has urged his departments to help companies by ditching overly burdensome and outdated regulations.
The National Chicken Council, which represents the $45-billion-a-year poultry industry, said the proposal would modernize an outdated inspection system.
In testing its relaxed rules at 20 chicken slaughterhouses and five turkey plants, the USDA found little difference with conventional plants in the instances of salmonella and other pathogens.
The test plants performed "exceptionally well" at preventing bodies with defects like feathers and tissue from making it down the line to federal inspectors, the department said.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is required by law to inspect each carcass that moves through a poultry plant for safety and wholesomeness.
Under existing rules, the production line can move as fast as 140 birds a minute. Up to four federal inspectors positioned along the line inspect carcasses and remove those that have visual defects that might indicate the presence of pathogens. No single inspector inspects more than 35 birds a minute.
The relaxed rules allow lines to speed to 175 birds per minute while relying on plant employees to spot defective carcasses and pull them from the line. They then move past a single line inspector.
The system frees inspectors from having to perform such duties as ensuring that "there's no bruises and feathers in the way," tasks that should be the plant's responsibility, the USDA's Hagen said.
"If our inspectors are focusing on only inspecting the birds that have been found to be suitable for inspection, that can be done at a faster pace," she said.
The shift in resources would allow for four times more carcasses to be examined by offline inspectors, the department said. Some plants might gain additional offline inspectors to help perform those examinations.
But critics said proposed rules would allow poultry plants to move more chickens faster and with less oversight.
"What they're proposing is a joke," health advocacy lobbyist Corbo said. "One inspector can't possibly do this at 175 birds per minute."
Workers in test plants reported being unable to stop dirty and potentially diseased carcasses from moving through their plants, according to the Government Accountability Project, a group that assists whistle-blowers.
"Every bird in a traditional plant receives an inspection. You look at the viscera, at the inside of the chicken," said Stan Painter, a federal inspector who has worked in poultry processing plants for 27 years.
In a test plant, "you're not able to look at the inside of the chicken. They're just jammed together, their wings are literally touching."
Painter said he has seen defective chicken bodies move down the line for packaging "every day" at the slaughterhouse where he works, one of the test plants.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there are 1.2 million incidents of salmonella illness each year. Unlike other food-borne illnesses, the incidence of salmonella has risen 10 percent in recent years.
When Consumer Reports tested 382 broiler chickens bought from grocery stores in 2009, 14 percent were found to contain salmonella.
Thorough cooking typically kills salmonella, but the bacteria can spread from hands and kitchen implements that have not been thoroughly washed.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents nearly a third of the nation's 200,000 poultry workers, said the new rules would mean "more danger on the job."
The poultry industry's worker injury rate already is about a third higher than the average for all manufacturing industries. They often are prone to back and repetitive stress injuries, and one study said 59 percent of line workers already have carpal tunnel syndrome at line speeds of 70 to 91 birds a minute.
The USDA did not examine the effect of increased line speeds on workers, but said it is preparing a report now.
The National Council of La Raza argued that the proposed rule is based on "the unsubstantiated assumption that faster line speed will have no adverse impact on worker health and safety."
The American Public Health Association, in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, called the proposal "seriously flawed" and said the USDA should be taking steps to slow production lines.
"The conclusions of the best occupational health researchers who have studied this population is that the line speed should be slowed not increased to an unfathomable 175 birds per minute to protect workers from harm," the association wrote.
The USDA's Hagen said the department is looking into the effect of line speeds on worker health.