September 24, 2012 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 5Comment

[Update below, 9/26/2012]

When Secretary of Agricultural Tom Vilsack announced in January the USDA’s proposal to modernize the poultry slaughter inspection system, he promised several things.  He said the new system would save taxpayers and poultry producers money while improving food safety.   (In “The Age of Greed,” law professor Rena Steinzor explains on whose backs those savings are borne.)  Secretary Vilsack also insisted that USDA inspectors

“will continue to conduct on-line carcass-by-carcass inspection as mandated by law.” 

That requirement is a long-standing provision of the Poultry Products Inspection Act (P.L. 85-172) which directs the Secretary of Agriculture to ensure that federal inspectors make a “post mortem inspection of the carcass of each bird processed.”   The statute defines the carcass as “all parts, including viscera,” which means the guts of the bird.

The trouble is, under this Obama Administration proposal the assembly lines in poultry processing plants could run at 175 birds per minute (bpm).  Watch this animation of chicken carcasses on a conveyor belt and you’ll see 175 bpm.  Who is USDA trying to fool with its assertion:

“FSIS will continue to conduct on-line carcass-by-carcass inspection as mandated by law”?

That’s three birds per second.  I’m not sure someone could even grab chicken carcasses flying by that fast, let alone inspect them.

The labor organization representing the poultry inspectors said it best in their written comments about the proposed rule:

“It exceeds the bounds of logic and common sense to reasonably contend that one person can carefully examine more than 80,000 chickens per workday when the carcasses are whizzing past the inspector at a rate of 3 chickens per second.  The ordinary, common meaning of the word ‘inspection’ must be more than the mere observation of a continuous blur.”

Yet the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) insists it’s possible.  In the agency’s April 26, 2012 Federal Register notice, FSIS said:

“Analysis if HIMP data shows that carcass inspectors are able to detect fecal contamination and septicemia/toxemia at line speeds of up to 175 birds per minuted for young chickens.”

The inspectors go on explaining that under the NPIS, the FSIS online carcass inspector:

“will spend his days not inspecting anything under any rational interpretation of the word.  Instead, the online NPIS inspector will be tasked with the meaningless job of watching 80,000 chickens flash by while diseased, contaminated, and otherwise adulterated poultry enters the chiller.”

My eyes cross when I watch this animation of chicken carcasses flying by at three per second.   Despite the USDA’s assertions that this proposal is good for U.S. consumers, they’ve yet to explain how it conforms with mandatory inspection requirements of the Poultry Products Inspection Act.  USDA inspectors provide a vital public health service, but their bosses need to quit insisting they can do their jobs at 175 birds per minute.

[9/26/2012 Update: An FSIS poultry inspector who retired in 2010 provides an insider’s view of these USDA proposed changes.  Phyllis McKelvey worked in the poultry industry for 44 years—both for the industry and as an federal inspector—and says the changes will be “disastrous” for food safety.  Ms. McKelvey also describes conditions in the plant for the poultry workers who suffer from severe repetitive motion injuries.]


5 thoughts on “Is USDA serious? Inspecting a chicken in 1/3 of a second?

  1. That animation is great. I thought 175 birds per minute sounded awfully fast, but seeing them whiz by at that speed really brings home how nuts that speed is.

  2. Thank you so much for raising awareness about this issue! It is crucially important that we maintain a sensible line speed which allows inspectors to do their job to protect us all.

    You can find much more information on this issue at our Poultry Rule Information Center:

    Take action! Send a message to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, telling the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that we reject any attempt to weaken federal standards on the food we eat:

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