Is USDA Playing Chicken with Chickens?
the last State of the Union message, President Obama promised—in the
spirit of bipartisanship and picking up some of what he said were
constructive suggestions from the other side of the aisle, was going to
issue a order to his various regulatory authorities to lessen
regulation, make it more efficient and more rational, he said.
of those changes is going to affect the chicken you eat. In order to
boost production, the speed of chicken assembly lines, by about 25
percent, slaughterhouses are now going to more or less be able to
inspect the chickens themselves and reduce the number of government
inspectors by about 75 percent. So is this good for business? And how is
it for you when you've got to eat this chicken?Now
joining us is Tony Corbo. He's the senior lobbyist for the food campaign
at Food and Water Watch. He's responsible for food-related legislative
and regulatory issues that come before Congress and the executive
Obama Admin. and Congress push USDA to allow poultry industry to “self-inspect”
Tony Corbo is the senior
lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch. He is
responsible for food-related legislative and regulatory issues that come
before Congress and the Executive Branch.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington.
Thanks for joining us, Tony.
TONY CORBO, SENIOR LOBBYIST, FOOD AND WATER WATCH: Well, thank you very much for having me.JAY: So first of all—so what's wrong with this plan? It sounds—they're going to produce more chickens. And I understand in an L.A. Times
piece about this that in 20 sites that were checked as a test case on
this, in other words, 20 slaughterhouses that were to be self-inspected,
if you were, that it wasn't really any worse than the plants that were
being government-inspected. So what's wrong with this plan?
Well, what's wrong with it is that it's essentially a privatization of
food inspection. The 20 plants that have been running this pilot project
since the late '90s really have not shown that they can really do the
job as effectively as having full government inspection, regardless of
what USDA is saying.
JAY: Well, how do you know that?CORBO:
Well, their own data show that when you take those 20 plants—and they
tend to be 20 of the largest chicken plants, chicken slaughterhouses in
the country—if you compare them to comparably sized plants that have not
been part of the pilot, the plants in the pilot project have actually
had higher salmonella rates than the plants not participating in the
pilot. So the argument that they're making is that this is going to
improve public health, when actually their own data show the opposite is
going to happen.
JAY: Well, the objective didn't seem to
be to improve public health. The objective seemed to be to improve the
speed or rate of production or increase productivity, but at least in
theory without sacrificing public health. And you're arguing that's not
CORBO: That is not the case. And they constantly
say that this is to improve public health, when really the bottom line
is that the government is going to save upwards of $90 million over the
next three years through the elimination of 8,800 USDA inspector
positions, and the industry stands to gain $260 million a year because
they'll be able to increase their line speeds and they'll have less
regulation to deal with.JAY: Now, why does it increase the
line speed? In theory, if their self-inspection is equal to the
government inspection, it should take the same amount of time. Why isn't
CORBO: Well, in the pilot project, in the pilot
project the plants have been able to get waivers from the government on
line speeds. Right now if—in a government-inspected plant where you have
full government inspection, each inspector is responsible for up to 35
chickens per minute. And what this proposal will do is that it'll
eliminate that regulation. So they'll be able to run the line speeds at
175 birds a minute and turn over a lot of the inspection
responsibilities over to the company employees to perform.
So how do you inspect chickens at 135 chickens a minute? I don't get
it. If I understand correctly, now the government inspectors are
actually looking at and inside each of their chickens. And how are they
going to keep doing that if the line speed's so much faster?
Right. And the thing is that in a slaughterhouse that has full
government inspection, you have USDA inspectors who are looking at all
sides of the chicken, they're looking inside the cavity of the chicken,
to see if there's any fecal contamination. What this proposal will do is
they'll station only one USDA inspector at the end of the line. And the
way they've set up the pilot project, which they're going to continue
in this proposed rule if it gets finalized, is the inspector will stand
looking only at one side of the chicken, not being able to look on the
inside of the chicken. So you're going to have contaminated chicken
going into the marketplace.
JAY: Now, I suppose the
industry's argument would be that there's no evidence that chickens need
to be so inspected, that there isn't such a problem. I mean, what's the
issue? Is salmonella infection going up or down these days?
Well, the thing is that salmonella is a major issue. Over a million
people get sick every year from salmonella. A lot of it comes from
animal products, and in particular poultry. And what the industry is
assuming is that it's—the consumer has to cook it out. You don't eat a
chicken raw or you don't eat it rare. You cook it thoroughly. So it's up
to the consumer to essentially kill any salmonella that still may be in
the chicken. And this is the rub.I mean, if the
government were really serious about reducing salmonella, they would
increase regulations. Right now, salmonella is not considered to be an
adulterant in food. They need to go to Congress, this administration
needs to go to Congress and ask for the authority to declare salmonella
as an adulterant to reduce the levels of illness attributed to
salmonella.JAY: Now, apparently there's a whistleblower
sent some—who was an actual private inspector and worked for the
company, and he apparently has said that there's a tremendous pressure
on them to not stop the line—in other words, if you want to stop the
line to pull a chicken out if there's a problem. And I guess that's the
underlying fear here, that when this gets privatized, then you get a
kind of pressure put on those employees that you couldn't in theory put
on government inspectors.
CORBO: Right, because the company
employee is going to be beholden to the company. It's not going to be
beholden to the government or to the consumer. So the bottom line for
the company is the bottom line. So the more chickens they can run
through the system, the more money they're going to make. And so there's
an inherent conflict of interest of what this proposal will do.
So where is this at now in terms of process? Is this totally in the
realm of the regulatory authority and they can do one way or the other?
Does Congress have something to say about it? And where is the process?
It's actually in both hands. Right now, the Congress, the—. This is how
this proposal came about. The Republican House of Representatives
forced the USDA to expand the pilot project to include all of the
chicken slaughter facilities. The main mover of the proposal in the
Congress is Congressman Jack Kingston from Georgia. He is a strong ally
of the poultry industry. So he pushed the Obama administration into
expanding the pilot project. And they then proposed a regulation back in
January to implement the expansion of the pilot project. So it's
actually in two hands.Right now, the proposal—the comment
period closed last week, but we're still urging people to write letters
to Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack opposing this proposal. And we're
also asking people to send letters to their members of Congress asking
them to stop the pilot project, because the bottom line is, if the
Congress doesn't appropriate the money for full government inspection,
they're going to privatize the inspection process.
see. So the Obama administration can change the regulation, but the
money for the inspectors in the final analysis has to be approved by the
CORBO: By the Congress, yeah, by both House and Senate. But, again, the prime mover have been the House Republicans on this.
Right. Now, has there been any pushback against this from the Obama
administration? Or just they're going along with it? I mean, on the face
of it, it doesn't seem to make a heck of a lot of sense.
There doesn't seem to be a push back from the Obama administration, but
we have heard that they did not anticipate the pushback that they've
gotten through the proposed regulation. Over 150,000 comments have been
filed against [incompr.] for the most part against this proposed
regulation. So the thing is that we're going to have to change the
dynamics within the White House on proceeding [incompr.] we think is a
JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Tony.CORBO: Well, thank you very much.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.