American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to block new rules that could result in diseased or tainted poultry being sold to consumers.
The new rules, if fully implemented, could dramatically reduce the number of poultry inspectors, and make each inspector responsible for examining 140 birds per minute — four times as much as the previous standard. Federal inspectors would no longer conduct comprehensive examinations of the carcass of each chicken and turkey: That responsibility would be delegated to poultry processors themselves. USDA inspectors would see carcasses only after they have been eviscerated, sorted, trimmed and reprocessed by the poultry processors.
AFGE’s lawsuit — filed Oct. 20 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia — says the new inspection system will impair the ability of federal inspectors to detect unwholesome and adulterated chickens because they will no longer see the viscera of each carcass. Despite that, the viscera, known as giblets, would be sold for human consumption with the official USDA inspection stamp. The union argues that the new rule violates a federal law, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, which requires that government inspectors perform a post-mortem inspection of the carcass of each bird
USDA inspector Ken Adrian is president of AFGE Local 1188, a 43-member Pacific Northwest local of food inspectors. He says the concern is that if inspectors are company employees, they’ll be reluctant to shut the production line down when there are problems.
“We [federal employees] have the authority to stop production if we see a huge problem,” Adrian said. “Let’s say there’s a lot of feces on the carcasses because the machinery is breaking down. It doesn’t cost us anything to stop production and say we have a problem – there’s contaminated product. Their own employees on the other hand … these are companies that keep track of how much it costs them for each second the production line is shut down.”
It’s not that the companies would want to sell contaminated product, Adrian says, just that the temptation to cut corners could put public health at risk. So far, Adrian says, the new rules are voluntary, and no poultry processor in Oregon or Washington is using them.