Those not bothered by a bit of salmonella or a dash of E. coli on their chicken cutlets won't mind the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed new inspection rules.
Chicken tainted with disease, dirty feathers and other impurities could end up on dinner plates and in takeout sacks all over the country.
Poultry inspectors demonstrated outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this week to protest a proposal that drastically cuts the number of inspectors and allows the slaughterhouse lines to speed up. The job of inspection, under the plan, is turned over to the company that runs the slaughterhouse.
At the protest under Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's window the inspectors, all members of the American Federation of Government Employees, held signs reading: "Chicken Inspection isn't a Speed Sport," "Don't Play Chicken With Safety," and "Speed Kills."
Line speeds would jump, under the proposal, from 140 birds per minute, with three inspectors inspecting 35 birds each per minute, to closer to 200 birds a minute, with only one USDA inspector on the line. "How much can you see in that period of time?," a Georgia inspector asked a Food Safety News reporter recently.
"We have only a few seconds to look at the birds," said Clarence Douglas, an inspector in Mississippi. "It's already tough to inspect as it is. If you speed it up you'll make it even more difficult."
Opponents of the new rules say it significantly benefits the industry while increasing the risk to consumers.
In America's industrial-scale poultry slaughterhouses, a USDA inspector currently looks at each bird emerging from the kill line for any notable defects.
If a bird looks flawed it gets yanked off the line. According to inspectors, the maximum number of birds that can be inspected this way is 35 birds per minute, about one every 1.7 seconds.
Under the new rules the inspectors on the line and at the kill machine would be eliminated and slaughterhouse employees would take over for them. The USDA says it would sample 20 to 80 birds per slaughter line during an 8-hour shift. The new rules, however, would allow the line to speed up to upwards of 200 birds a minute, meaning the inspectors would now be looking at only the tiniest fraction of the birds that end up on plates and in takeout bags.
The USDA says it has run a pilot program to test the new procedures. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the consumer group Food and Water Watch obtained inspection documents from the pilot program over an eight-month period.
The results, in the group's summary report: "Company employees miss many defects in poultry carcasses. The inspection category that had the highest error rate was 'Other Consumer Protection 4, including defects such as feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass. The average error rate for this category in the chicken slaughter facilities was 64 percent and 87 percent in turkey slaughter facilities. In one turkey slaughter facility, nearly 100 percent of samples found this category of defect.
Inspectors from Food and Water Watch found intestines wrapped around the rotating parts of chiller machines, often containing fecal material. Numerous other pieces of digestive tract materials, including chicken crops and esophogus were found in meat chillers.
According to FWW, the regulatory non-compliance it found would potentially allow for the cross contamination of necks by digestive contents including feces.
"There's very little more disgusting though, then a regulating agency more interested in pleasing the meat industry than it is in protecting the public," said Manny Hermann, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. "We count on USDA inspectors to keep us and our families healthy but the USDA wants to save money by throwing 1,000 of them out of work."
He urged everyone to sign the labor federation's petition against what he called "the dirty chicken rule."
"About 3,000 Americans die from food-borne illnesses each year," he noted. "This new inspection system for poultry slaughter plants is another example of attacks on everyday working people."
Photo: USDA Chicken Safety rally, April 2. AFGE