Union, advocacy groups fight chicken-inspection changes

WASHINGTON: The American Federation of Government Employees and various advocacy groups are drawing attention to a pending federal policy that they say would make chicken less safe to eat.

WASHINGTON: The American Federation of Government Employees and various advocacy groups are drawing attention to a pending federal policy that they say would make chicken less safe to eat.

Earlier this year, the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service proposed modernizing young chicken and turkey slaughter inspections. The process would focus resources on the parts of production that highlight the greatest risk to food safety and not on issues like identifying visual defects like bruising or feathers.

The USDA forecasts that over three years, this change would save $90 million through the elimination over 800 inspector positions, while the poultry industry expects to save $256.6 million in production costs.

However, the American Federation of Government Employees and groups like Food & Water Watch, Consumer Federation of America, and National Consumers League say the new system would harm product safety. The USDA has run a pilot project using the prospective standards with privatized inspection in more than two dozen slaughter facilities since 1998. Food & Water Watch contends that employees miss many defects in poultry carcasses.  

The advocacy groups have teamed up to launch a multifaceted awareness effort called “Let Them Eat Chicken” to alert both consumers and policy makers of the change and to encourage them to comment on an open federal docket on the proposed rule. The deadline for feedback is April 26.  

“We're not employing scare tactics, we're trying to let the record for self-inspection speak for itself,” said Enid Doggett, communications director at the American Federation of Government Employees. “[Private inspection] just simply is not going to work.”

Doggett said that beyond reaching out to consumers in general, she is contacting urban radio stations and publications like Sister 2 Sister to mobilize consumers.

The group is also pitching mainstream media outlets and food bloggers, conducting demonstrations, creating fact cards, and using social media. The organization has also developed a microsite that tracks all awareness activities.

The American Federation of Government Employees developed the campaign in-house.

Food & Water Watch has tied the beef industry's “pink slime” controversy to some of its outreach. It has called “pink slime” reports the “tip of the meat iceberg” in a blog post, contending that the poultry inspection rule change is a much bigger threat to food safety. It said it found evidence that private companies have overlooked bile and fecal matter on carcasses.

“These issues are connected in that it all boils down to us having an industrialized meat system in our country,” said Anna Ghosh, communications manager at Food & Water Watch.

The USDA said it is standing by its reasoning to change the poultry-inspection process.

“FSIS' proposal to modernize our poultry slaughter inspection process would focus FSIS' inspection resources on activities that provide greater food-safety benefits, but it would not privatize our inspection process,” said Dirk Fillpot, media supervisor at FSIS. “FSIS will continue to conduct carcass-by-carcass inspections as mandated by law.” 

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