After years of hesitation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is moving ahead with a plan to take inspectors off the evisceration line at chicken and turkey slaughter plants. Since the 1950’s, inspectors have stood at fixed stations on the line and checked every chicken carcass that came along. (About one every two seconds, usually.) They were supposed to touch the carcass in a certain way to check for evidence of bird disease, look for bile or fecal contamination, and otherwise make sure it was wholesome.
Trouble is, most poultry diseases have been practically eliminated. The concern in recent years hasn’t been for poultry diseases, but for microbial contamination such as Salmonella. And you can’t see or feel Salmonella cells no matter how hard you try.
So USDA launched a pilot program way back in 1998 to allow the processing plants to take care of carcass inspection while federal employees make sure the plant is following its sanitation and anti-contamination plans. Made a ton of sense. It also made the union that represents federal inspectors very unhappy. An uneasy status quo has lasted 13 years.
While the meat and poulty industries have made all sorts of technological improvements, federal inspection has remained largley frozen in time.
So, in a “only Nixon could go to China” sort of way, it makes sense that a Democratic administration can buck the union and push forward with the plan. Hundreds of inspection postion will be eliminated by attrition, and 1,500 inspectors will have to qualify for higher-level jobs as quality inspectors, or move on.
There’s little doubt that food safety will actually be enhanced, since the data from the pilot plants makes clear they have better records than those with regular inspection. I’m sure the union and a few activist groups will still fight the new program, but Center for Science in the Public Interest is on board and it looks like USDA will finally prevail. ‘Bout time.