Groups Oppose Agency Budget Cuts to Meat and Poultry Inspection

June 26, 2013 | Download PDF

Dear Representative:

We, the undersigned members of the Safe Food Coalition and the Worker Health and Safety Coalition, write in opposition to cuts in the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2014 (HR 2410), which would reduce funding for federal meat and poultry inspection. We also oppose language inserted into the report and adopted by the House Appropriations Committee, which urges the U.S. Department of Agriculture to move forward with its proposal to substantially change the poultry inspection program.

We have serious concerns about USDA’s poultry inspection proposal and its impact on public health. The proposal is different from the pilot project referenced in the amendment and has not been wholly tested. Nor has USDA held public meetings to discuss such substantial changes to its poultry inspection program.

USDA’s proposal does not require plants to test for Salmonella or Campylobacter, the two pathogens most frequently associated with raw poultry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent report card on foodborne illness showed a 14 percent increase in Campylobacter illness rates and no change in rates of Salmonella illnesses. Further, a study by the University of Florida ranked poultry contaminated with Campylobacter (#1) and Salmonella (#4) in the top five pathogen/food combinations that cause the greatest disease burden to the public. And a recent report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that more outbreaks were linked to chicken over the past 12 years than to any other meat or poultry product.

USDA’s proposal also allows each plant to decide the level of bruises, feathers, bile or ingesta appropriate for birds going down the processing line, rather than setting uniform standards across the industry. Further, the rule removes inspectors from the slaughter line and turns over inspection activities, previously conducted by federal inspectors, to plant employees who are not required to be trained in their new duties. USDA also proposes to allow plants to increase their line speeds up to 175 chicken carcasses per minute, meaning that the lone remaining inspector on the slaughter line will have 1/3 of a second to examine each chicken carcass for problems.

USDA’s proposed rule will also have a serious detrimental impact on the industry’s workers. Fast line speed is already a major cause of high injury rates among poultry processing workers. A recent report based on more than 300 worker interviews by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice found that 72 percent of poultry workers had suffered a significant job-related injury or illness and that the workers, many whom are immigrants, are often silenced from reporting injuries or making complaints about working conditions by threats of deportation and firing.

Further, a recent Health Hazard Evaluation published by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) found an alarming 42 percent of workers at one poultry plant in South Carolina had indications of carpal tunnel syndrome even before the scheduled line speed increase took effect at that plant. Workers of color, immigrants, and women are overrepresented in the poultry-processing industry and will bear a disproportionate share of the rule’s likely negative health impacts. The worker health and safety community has implored USDA to withdraw the poultry rule until the agency, at a minimum, develops a comprehensive plan to mitigate the serious concerns about line speed and preventable injuries.

USDA’s poultry inspection system does need to be modernized, but this proposal raises serious food safety and worker safety concerns. We urge you to remove the amendment language from the final appropriations report and to reinstate the budget cut of $12 million.

Sincerely,

American Federation of Government Employees – Center for Effective Government – Center for Food Safety – Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention – Center for Science in the Public Interest – Consumer Federation of America – Consumers Union Food & Water Watch – Government Accountability Project – National Consumers League National Council of La Raza (NCLR) – National Council for Occupational Safety and Health Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest – Southern Poverty Law Center STOP Foodborne Illness – United Food and Commercial Workers International Union – U.S. Public Interest Research Group – Worksafe, Inc.