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Federal inspectors, others spark broader public scrutiny of USDA reform effort

As promised, federal food inspectors, consumer groups and others on April 20 presented about 150,000 petitions to the Agriculture Department opposing proposed changes in the way poultry is inspected.

As promised, federal food safety inspectors, consumer groups and others on April 20 presented about 150,000 petitions to the Agriculture Department opposing proposed changes in the way poultry is inspected.

Poultry inspectors from the Food Safety and Inspection Service and the groups are protesting a plan that would take nationwide a pilot program under which fewer federal inspectors check poultry carcasses for physical defects, and plant employees take over much of the physical inspection process.

In response to growing media coverage of the proposed change, USDA on April 19 announced it would extend the public comment period for the proposal by about a month. The comment period was initially slated to close April 26.

“We recognize that this proposal would represent a significant change from the current system and has sparked a debate on how poultry is inspected,” FSIS said in a statement. “We also value the different opinions being expressed about the proposal and have extended the public comment period to ensure all sides are presented in this debate.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the inspectors, and a number of watchdog groups, including the Government Accountability Project and Food & Water Watch, delivered the petitions to USDA headquarters.

“Just like the fox shouldn’t guard the hen house, employees in poultry processing plants shouldn’t do their own food safety inspections,” Food & Water Watch said in a blog on its website.

AFGE National President John Gage blamed the plan on budget cuts and called it a “foolish and dangerous proposal.” Gage said the plan “would reduce our highly trained teams of federal food safety inspectors to a skeleton crew who would have to review three birds every second – a humanly impossible task.”

An AFGE press release also said the union had obtained FSIS data through the Freedom of Information Act which showed that “company inspectors operating under the pilot project remove far fewer diseased birds than federal inspectors operating under the traditional process.”

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