Recent history suggests that U.S. consumers are right to worry about the safety of what they eat. While the nation's food supply is generally safe, there have been enough exceptions in the last few years to remind everyone that the possibility of contamination is always present. The presence of disease-producing organisms in everything from meat to produce to eggs is proof of that. If the federal government enacts a proposed change in poultry safety rules, the chance of contaminants in the nation's most popular meat could increase.
If the change takes place, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would reduce the number of federal inspectors at poultry processing plants. Currently, those inspectors examine the birds for blemishes, feces, tumors and visible defects as they are processed. Any suspicious sighting prompts removal of the bird from the production line. Though the current system has its flaws -- some contaminated poultry does reach the marketplace with widespread sickness and even a few deaths as a result -- the system has proved workable.
There's no assurance the new system will do the same. If the government enacts the program, much of the inspection and detection work currently done by trained inspectors will be turned over to processing plant employees. That's sort of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
The plant workers will undergo training, but it is unlikely that their skills will match those of experienced federal workers. It's unlikely, too, that a plant employee will be as quick to pull a suspect carcass off the line as an inspector. After all, a company employee knows that any interruption in production likely costs his or her employer time and money. No employee wants to do that since doing so could directly impact their pay and their standing in the company.
Most food processing companies abide by the law and work diligently to follow and promote high safety standards. Some, though, cut corners in order to make an extra buck. There are not many, to be sure, but enough that contaminated food sometimes makes it from processing plant to the marketplace.
The result can be disastrous. Well over a million cases of food poisoning in the United States each year are caused by salmonella, a common poultry contaminant. Last year, more than 36 million pounds of ground turkey were recalled because of salmonella contamination. One death and more than 100 serious cases of food poisoning were tied to the meat.
Under the new proposal, which would cut the number of poultry inspectors by about 800, many of the remaining inspectors would move from the production line to offices and labs to oversee testing and safety programs. Those left on the line to oversee the work of plant employees would be hard pressed to maintain high standards.
Experts say inspectors working under current regulations check about 90 birds a minute. If the new proposal takes effect, that could rise to 175 a minute -- a rate likely to increase the chance that a diseased or contaminated bird will pass inspection and reach the public.
The Agriculture Department says the new rules will save it millions of dollars a year without compromising safety. There's nothing wrong with saving taxpayer dollars -- if it can be done without compromising standards or endangering the public. There's no assurance that will be the case in this instance. Until such a warranty can be provided, consumers almost certainly will be better served by current, albeit more expensive, poultry inspection regulations.