Push to modernize plant inspections threatens food safety, report says

USDA criticized for not thoroughly evaluating pilot projects expected to serve as models for poultry slaughterhouses

Several food and environmental groups have expressed concerns about inspection programs at poultry slaughterhouses.
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A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report says that agriculture regulators pushing to streamline food-safety inspection have not thoroughly evaluated pilot projects that are expected to serve as models for poultry slaughterhouses across the country, which could jeopardize food safety.

The GAO report, released Sept. 4, also criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for failing to disclose accurate information about the data it used to promote what it calls "modernization" changes at the plants, which are aimed at saving taxpayer money.

The government plan, which includes speeding up processing lines while cutting back on the number of government inspectors, has sparked significant opposition from those concerned that dangerous pathogens like salmonella could go undetected under the new system.

Opponents of the plan argue that greater emphasis needs to be placed on holding the companies that produce contaminated food accountable.

If the government is to actually improve poultry inspection, "the Obama Administration needs to get the legal authority from Congress to hold companies accountable for putting contaminated food into commerce, not deregulate inspection," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a leading critic of the plan.

But the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, or FSIS, said there are several inaccuracies contained in the GAO report. It added that the findings miss the main objective of the government effort, which is to reduce overlapping inspections by plant employees and government inspectors and allow government inspectors to focus on areas of greatest risk to food safety.

In 2011, the USDA said operation of the pilot project at 20 chicken plants showed that the streamlined inspection program would ensure equivalent, if not better, levels of food safety and quality than currently provided at plants not in the pilot project. In early 2012, the USDA indicated that it would extend the pilot program for poultry to all U.S. poultry plants, which could dramatically speed up processing lines.

But the GAO report said it found that the USDA relied on limited snapshots of data, rather than from the duration of the entire pilot project, and did not complete any evaluation for the pilot projects at five turkey plants, as it suggested it had done in a publication on the project.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., requested the GAO report after several food and environmental groups expressed concerns about the pilot programs.

The senator sent a letter Wednesday to the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees funding for food-inspection operations, urging it to ensure that the new plan for modifying poultry inspection does not go forward "until further action is taken to protect food safety." The letter was made available to Reuters by Gillibrand's office.

The GAO report, Gillibrand said, shows that the FSIS' evaluation of the pilot program is "deeply flawed" and "not formulated on a strong scientific basis."

Proponents say the new system, which would be the first major overhaul of poultry inspection in 50 years, will allow government inspectors to spend more time focused on microbiological testing and other food-safety activities rather than on quality control.

Tyson Foods Inc., one of the world's largest poultry companies, has been piloting the plan at some of its poultry plants and is a supporter of the changes.

Opponents of the USDA's modernization project have drawn attention to two recent salmonella outbreaks as evidence of its inability to curb dangerous pathogens.

In the aftermath of a 2008 salmonella outbreak spread by canned salsa that caused at least 1,442 people to be hospitalized, the George W. Bush administration was criticized for its failure to enact stricter regulation, namely a plan that would have forced food producers to implement electronic tracing that could be used to trace contaminated ingredients through the supply chain.

Salmonella contaminated eggs originating in two Iowa plants caused approximately 1,939 illnesses between May and November 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spurring an even wider push for regulation.

The food industry has traditionally been vocal in its opposition to costly and burdensome regulation, but public outrage in response to these high-profile outbreaks has eroded their stance. Now, many companies are in favor of more efficient regulation so long as they are included in developing new processes.

"The food industry is learning the hard way that having a strong FDA and common sense regulation makes good financial sense," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who was the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee during the 2008 outbreak.

In January 2010, a Democratic Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act with the goal of expanding regulation and increasing focus on prevention of outbreaks, rather than simply containment. The Act fell short of establishing an electronic tracking system or any other mechanism for tracing the origin of food products in the event of contamination.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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