USDA to Let Industry Self-Inspect Chicken

Image Credit: Scott Sinklier/AgStock Images/Corbis

Chicken is the top-selling meat in the United States.  The average American eats 84 pounds a year - more chicken than beef or pork.  Sorry red meat, chicken is what's for dinner.

Now, the USDA is proposing a fundamental change in the way that poultry makes it to the American dinner table.

As early as next week, the government will end debate on a cost-cutting, modernization proposal it hopes to fully implement by the end of the year - a plan that is setting off alarm bells among food science watchdogs because it turns over most of the chicken inspection duties to the companies that produce the birds for sale.

The USDA hopes to save $85 million over three years by laying off 1,000 government inspectors and turning over their duties to company monitors who will staff the poultry processing lines in plants across the country.

The poultry companies expect to save more than $250 million a year because they, in turn, will  be allowed to speed up the processing lines to a dizzying 175 birds per minute with one USDA inspector at the end of the line.

Currently, traditional poultry lines move at a maximum of 90 birds per minute, with up to three USDA inspectors on line.

Whistleblower inspectors opposed to the new USDA rule say the companies cannot be trusted to watch over themselves.  They contend that companies routinely pressure their employees not to stop the line or slow it down, making thorough inspection for contaminants, tumors and evidence of disease nearly impossible.

"At that speed, it's all a blur," one current inspector tells ABC News.

"I think that there needs to be a critical evaluation of this program," said Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign, an organization that empowers industry whistleblowers and citizen activists. "People need to have an opportunity to question some of these results and different things that the agency is coming up with in regard to the safety of this program.

"We're listening to the people that are actually doing [the inspections] and they're saying unequivocally the traditional inspection produces higher quality and safer poultry," Hitt said.

According to OMB Watch, a government accountability organization, cutbacks at the USDA have coincided with a significant rise in salmonella outbreaks.  The group says 2010 was a record year for salmonella infection and 2011 saw 103 poultry, egg and meat recalls because of disease-causing bacteria, the most in nearly 10 years.

The USDA, which has been running a pilot program of the changes in 20 U.S. poultry plants, says the new system is not about cost-cutting, but about bringing food safety up to date.

"You can't see pathogens. You can't see campylobacter," Alfred Almanza, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service, told ABC News.

The USDA admitted the new system does not employ more lab tests that can see salmonella and other bacteria.

Critics said some companies are not to be trusted when it comes to testing because they cheat the system by rigging the test.

"We do not have evidence of that," Almanza said. "But when we're told of anything of that nature we take those allegations seriously."

Watchdog groups insist a combination of increased testing and government inspection is needed to lower salmonella and other disease outbreaks from chicken.

"The proposed inspection system will better protect the public from foodborne illnesses by reducing reliance on old-fashioned visual and sensory inspection and moving to prevention-oriented inspection systems based on actual risk to consumers," Ashley Peterson, vice president of science and technology at the National Chicken Council, said in a statement. "It is the goal and primary focus of the chicken industry and USDA alike to provide consumers with safe, high-quality and wholesome chicken. This proposed rule does not change that goal."

Click here to read the complete statement from the National Chicken Council.