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A food fight takes flight over poultry regulations

Wednesday - 11/14/2012, 8:07pm  ET

Randi Martin, wtop.com

What the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls a modernization process others are calling a disaster waiting to happen.

A proposal released in January to update the department's poultry inspection programs would protect public health, improve the efficiency of poultry inspections in the U.S., and reduce spending, according to a USDA statement.

But opponents of the revisions say the plan would increase the poultry line speed, limiting inspectors time to visibly review the birds, and would reduce the numbers of federal inspectors working in poultry plants.

A coalition of 25 consumer and public health groups, researchers and a former USDA inspector are spearheading efforts to halt the regulation changes.

The coalition includes OMB Watch, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Consumer Federation of America. They sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in September detailing their concerns.

The coalition says the inspection changes would increase the chances that unsafe chicken could be bought and eaten by the public.

Inspectors would have just one-third of a second to inspect whole chickens for feces, bruises, tumors and feathers. And federal inspectors would be replaced by plant employees, who could be pressured to allow blemished birds to pass, according to the coalition letter.

Increasing the line speed also increases the risk for carpel tunnel and repetitive motion injuries for workers, the letter says.

The coalition also is concerned that the changes would allow each plant to set its own testing protocols and would not be required to test for Salmonella and Campylobacter, which cause food-borne illness.

Phyllis McKelvey, of Alabama, is a former USDA food inspector. She launched a petition on change.org to stop the regulation changes and has gathered more than 177,000 signatures so far.

Agriculture officials argue the changes are needed to modernize the inspection process and to better focus resources on prevention including insuring the plants process the birds in a sanitary environment.

"USDA is committed to protecting the food supply and American families by continuously improving food safety. We appreciate input from all parties interested in our efforts to modernize the poultry slaughter process," the USDA said in a statement released to WTOP.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)