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The New USDA Rules for Poultry Inspection Are Here


Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles were on their first world tour, Roy Orbison released "Oh, Pretty Woman," and "Mary Poppins" premiered in Los Angeles. That was a long, long, long time ago. That's five popes ago. But one arena where that timespan is simply a drop in the bucket? The rules governing how our food is inspected.

Last week, the USDA released new rules for poultry inspections in the U.S. It was the first time in over 50 years that the rules have been changed. (Fifty-seven years ago, to be exact; read the old rules in their archaic glory here.) And as with nearly any change in policy, opinions are divided as to its effectiveness.

You could even say -- if you're that type of person -- that some people are squawking at the new rules!

While the changes come hot on the heels of China trying, once again, to import their poultry into the States, they're actually the result of years of analysis following the implementation of the far-reaching Food Safety Modernization Act. So, what did the rules wizards at the USDA come up with?

First of all is a "take-backies" of sorts from the original drafts of the new rules, wherein companies would be allowed to increase the "birds per minute" examined by inspectors. Early drafts called for an increase from 140 bpms to 170 bpms, a shift that would lead to all sorts of new profits, as producers could get more chickens out the door. But after heavy criticism from consumer groups, the USDA relented and said that peak speed will remain at 140 birds per minute. (Which, frankly, still seems like a lot.)

Meaning, the first change in the rules isn't a change at all. But still, that's a good thing.

Next up, the new rules change where the inspectors are physically located. Instead of their customary place in a static position, waiting for poultry that show signs of visual defects, inspectors will now be mobile and roaming around. And now, they'll also be testing for invisible pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter, both of which are undetectable by the naked eye. This is important, seeing as salmonella and campylobacter are the top two pathogens found in poultry, leading to 1.2 million illnesses and roughly 450 deaths a year across the country. Bringing the inspection process up to date to include these tests is not only a necessary, but also somewhat embarrassing in that it took this long.

Due to the new methodology, the number of inspectors stationed in a particular plant will be reduced, saving taxpayer money in the process. Saving money is a good thing, right? Not entirely:

Wenonah Hauter of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch called it a "gift from the Obama administration to the industry" while Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said USDA "missed the boat" on designing a new system and put budget savings ahead of food safety.

Another big criticism of the new rules is that iffy poultry only gets to the USDA inspectors after first failing a test by the company's own inspectors. This, for somewhat obvious reasons, isn't the most welcoming of options for those skeptical of the industry in the first place:

"Generally speaking the meat industry has not performed well when it's been offered self-regulation opportunities," said Wayne Pacelle, executive director of the Humane Society of the United States.

Perhaps most worrisome is that this last rule is voluntary. Which is to say, companies can choose to "opt in" and have their own inspectors look first, or "opt out" and have more USDA-assigned inspectors walking around their plant. Of course, if they "opt in," the companies will have to foot the bill for their own inspectors, meaning a lot of smaller companies are going the latter route. This is troubling not so much because of its logistics as much as the mentality that large, factory farm corporations can kind of buy their way out of USDA inspections because they have the money to do so. Something about that smells awfully fishy.

That said, it's hard not to be pleased with new rules, if only because they are new. It's about time they've been updated. But now, maybe it's time to start working on the next update.

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