In , the USDA said operation of the pilot project at 20 young 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 , the USDA published a proposed rule that would extend the pilot program for poultry to all U.
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But the GAO report said it found that the USDA relied on limited snapshots of data from two two-year periods, rather than from the duration of the entire pilot project. In addition, the USDA did not complete any evaluation for the pilot projects at five young turkey plants, yet when it published a proposed rule that included an optional new inspection system for both chicken and turkey plants, the USDA stated that it was relying on experience with both chicken and turkey plants.
The USDA is similarly limiting its evaluation of data from hog plants as it prepares a rule to govern inspections at those slaughterhouses, the GAO said. The GAO report was requested by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, after several food and environmental groups expressed concerns about the pilot programs.
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The GAO report, Sen. Under the USDA proposal to expand the pilot projects, plants could dramatically speed up processing lines and replace many USDA inspectors with poultry company employees.
For decades, government poultry inspectors have been stationed along processing lines to identify contaminated and diseased carcasses. Critics fear that when plants speed up their processing and cut back on government inspectors, poultry feces and signs of disease on the birds are more likely to go undetected before the poultry is processed into food products. But government officials have said poultry will actually be safer in the new system, which would be the first major overhaul of poultry inspection in 50 years.
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Proponents say the current system requires government inspectors to spend time looking for defects that are quality related but not necessarily safety related. The new system would allow government inspectors to spend more time focused on microbiological testing and other food safety activities, the proponents say.
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, stresses that aspect of the report and pushes for eliminating the loophole that allows antibiotics to be used in chicken eggs up until the first day of life in organic chicken broilers.
The National Chicken Council, in a four-page response to the findings, says eliminating naturally occurring bacteria entirely is not feasible and that all bacteria can be killed with proper cooking.
The USDA plan for deregulating and privatizing meat and poultry inspection: A short history | IATP
The trade association also points to 10 years worth of data that show outbreaks related to E. Compared to other countries where similar studies have been done, these numbers are much lower, he observes.
It was not just the poultry industry confronting attacks on the safety of its products Tuesday. In the first outbreak, the agency did not issue a public health alert although it had previously done so based on comparable evidence.
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Some of the other specific weaknesses identified by Pew include: not considering Salmonella an adulterant in raw poultry; failing to update performance standards; not having standards for chicken parts; no unannounced Salmonella testing; and a lack of mandatory recall authority. Food safety groups and some lawmakers were outraged that potentially tainted product remained on grocery store shelves during the outbreak.
However, the agency has maintained that it operates under legal constraints and could not issue a recall without having enough evidence to support its actions in case of a lawsuit. The agency is also continuing to test samples at Foster Farms facilities to make sure it is implementing the changes it said it would make in the aftermath of the outbreak.