WASHINGTON – Recently, the public interest advocacy organization Food & Water Watch filed suit against the USDA and its Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) for failing to release critical information that could shed light on the safety of its New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS). The suit comes on the heels of a joint report released by the Pew Charitable Trust and Cargill that touts the benefits of privatized meat inspection.
“Today we’re calling on USDA and FSIS to release the names of poultry slaughter plants planning to enter the NPIS program,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “As USDA moves to expand privatized inspection to hog slaughter at the urging of Pew and Cargill, it’s more important than ever that the agency lift the shroud of secrecy around NPIS. Consumers deserve to know if the meat they’re serving their families is mostly inspected by the companies themselves. If these facilities are really more effective at ensuring that food doesn’t contain deadly contaminants, then what is USDA and FSIS hiding?” Related: 15 Things The Egg And Chicken Industry Does Not Want You To Know
The NPIS system removes most USDA inspectors off slaughter lines, replacing them with company employees and leaving only one USDA inspector left on the slaughter line to inspect carcasses. That lone USDA inspector is responsible for evaluating up to three birds per second in broiler chicken plants, and one turkey per second in turkey slaughter facilities. This new inspection model was established as a pilot project in 1998.
In 2014, USDA expanded the pilot, renamed it to NPIS and permitted other poultry slaughter plants to opt into it. As of March 2017, 53 poultry slaughter plants had converted to NPIS, including some of the biggest names in the poultry industry, including Tyson, Butterball, Perdue and Pilgrim’s Pride. USDA is actively encouraging more plants to participate—the agency estimates that 99.9 percent of all domestic poultry would eventually be produced by plants operating under the new rules. Recently, Representative Doug Collins (D-GA) requested that the agency increase line speeds, in part to encourage greater participation in the program.
Food & Water Watch has sought to evaluate the effectiveness of NPIS, but FSIS has denied the organization’s FOIA requests for the identities of the facilities seeking to join the new system that have not yet been granted permission. Without this information, the public cannot determine how the agency is evaluating requests for admission or which plants are likely to participate in the program in the future.
USDA originally claimed that NPIS would prevent close to 5,000 foodborne illnesses from salmonella and campylobacter, as the program would allow federal inspectors to perform other inspection tasks away from the slaughter lines. To date, the agency has not published any estimates of whether the plants in the program are more or less effective at protecting public health.
“If USDA wants to claim that NPIS is on track to prevent thousands of cases of foodborne illness a year, as it estimated in 2014, it should easily be able provide such an evaluation,” said Hauter. “But the agency won’t even tell us which plants plan to join the program.”
In April, the Centers for Disease Control released its 2016 report on foodborne illnesses. The report showed that incidences caused by various strains of salmonella and campylobacter remained the same as in previous years. While the report also contained initiatives taken by food safety regulatory agencies to reduce food borne illness, there was no mention of the NPIS.
FSIS operates a similar privatized inspection pilot program for hog slaughter facilities. FSIS officials recently expressed their intention to expand the pilot from the five plants currently involved to all such facilities in the near future. Cargill, which coauthored the report with Pew touting this approach, operates three turkey plants under NPIS. Cargill’s Beardstown, Illinois plant was one of the original facilities in the hog pilot. Cargill recently sold its pork processing business to JBS, which now operates that facility, still under the hog pilot project.
Cargill and the Pew Charitable Trust share a lobbyist, Randall Russell. Mr. Russell served as Chief of Staff to John Block, who served as Secretary of Agriculture during the first Reagan administration, when another attempt to deregulate meat inspection failed. Russell also represents Hormel Foods and Monsanto.