Thursday, February 21, 2013


The much touted new safety regulations supposed to ensure better protection to American consumers does not seem to be of much significance if those experienced inspectors with hands-on experience in policing the industry are to be believed. On the contrary the situation is likely to become worse because lot of trust is being placed on the industry for self inspection and self regulation. On one hand the inspection regime does not have adequate technical personnel to man the fast moving processing lines to do justice the spirit of safety inspection due to paucity of funds. On the other hand the industry is being allowed to to speed up production lines up to three birds a second to oblige their insatiable thirst for higher productivity and profitability. Here is a take on this emerging scenario in the US poultry industry which does not bode well for the future.

USDA's proposed rule to "modernize" the poultry inspection system would allow plants to speed the inspection line up to 175 birds per minute — that gives inspectors about a third of a second per bird to check for feces, tumors, defects, disease or other factors that could make consumers sick. (Read more on the rule and see what an animated version of one carcass per third of a second actually looks like here). Conventionally, plants could run poultry lines as fast as 140 carcasses per minute, but there were at least four FSIS inspectors on the line responsible for 35 birds each. Painter says that at the plant he's currently stationed at, which is participating in HIMP, the line was averaging up to 181 birds a minute with two plant-employed sorters and Painter at the end of the line. He says: "There's no humanly way possible two people can look inside 90 birds a minute." After the proposed modernization rule was published, USDA told the plant to cut its speed down to 175 birds per minute, Painter reports. Not that that makes much of a difference. "It's totally hands-off inspection," he told me. "Actually, it's not inspection, it's visualization. If you can't touch them, how can you inspect them? You can't even see inside the carcass." So, how can a plant meet basic food safety standards with less inspection? One way is dousing the poultry in chemicals. In fact, Painter told me that USDA encourages the use of chemicals. One chemical is called per acetic acid, an antimicrobial agent used to reduce the risk of food-borne pathogens salmonella and campylobacter. The problem is that after the carcasses are sprayed down with per acetic acid and then put in the chiller, depending on the chlorine concentration of the chiller, "it can be like having a bucket of bleach under your nose," Painter said. He said that it's not unusual to hear from poultry plant workers who say they're becoming ill after exposure to the chemical combination. "These chemicals keep getting pumped into the plant, but they don't increase ventilation," he said. Painter predicts that if current line speeds stay in place, he thinks plants will increase their reliance on chemicals to make up for inspection gaps. Painter said he'd "bet my last nickel on it." Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food program at Food & Water Watch, said he and his colleagues suspect that poultry plants manipulate the levels of chemicals depending on when FSIS conducts salmonella testing. Testing kits are sent directly to the plant, not to the inspector, Corbo told me, so the plant gets a convenient heads-up. So, while USDA says that the new "modernized" inspection system is leading to reduced rates of salmonella, Corbo said plants can easily manipulate their systems to prepare for FSIS testing. He also noted that while industry says the chemical residue left on the poultry is fairly small, "I don't think anyone's doing any long-term testing to see if that's the case." In 2011, Corbo filed a Freedom of Information Act request to view data coming out of the HIMP plants. He found that plant-employed inspectors, as opposed to FSIS inspectors, where not upholding food safety standards. According to a Food & Water Watch news release, "the records show that bile, sores, scabs, feathers, and digestive tract tissue are often not being properly removed from chicken carcasses." Corbo said that the overwhelming majority of noncompliance reports coming from HIMP plants and filed by FSIS inspectors are for fecal contamination in the cavity of the bird. But if the FSIS inspector can only truly inspect a small fraction of the carcasses that speed by on the line each day, "we don't really know how many of those carcasses actually got into commerce," he said. "Essentially, the attitude of the industry is that chicken isn't something people eat raw…it has to be properly cooked," Corbo said. "They're saying it's really the responsibility of the consumer, which we think is ridiculous. The industry has a responsibility here too. …(With this proposed rule), we're essentially leaving it up to one (FSIS) inspector at the end of the line and chemicals to prevent food-borne illness from entering the food supply." Painter, who himself is struggling with health problems he believes stems from food tainted with salmonella or campylobacter, says he's not optimistic that there's enough opposition to stop the proposed modernization rule. His advice? "Wash it, clean it, cook it thoroughly." "I've worked for poultry prior to working for (USDA)," he said. "I'm not anti-industry…but we can't expect a plant to regulate itself when a dollar value is involved."

It is understandable that industry has to increase productivity very significantly to meet with the ever increasing demand of the consumers for chicken meat and products derived from it. But compromising the safety of these products, whatever be the excuse, cannot be condoned under any circumstances. Increased use of chemicals like per acetic acid and high levels of chlorine can be counter productive, besides being dangerous for the consumer as ell as the personnel working in the plant. Frustration experienced by the inspecting personnel is reflected in their advice to the consumers that they should not trust the industry and in stead take appropriate measures for cleaning and cooking the material at their home! The danger is magnified when it is realized that feces-contaminated poultry meat stored in kitchen refrigerators can pollute other food materials like fruits, vegetables, milk etc causing much more damage eventually.


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