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Watchdog group sues USDA for names of poultry companies

Food & Water Watch says new poultry inspection system gives companies too much autonomy

BY NEWS DESK | JUNE 13, 2017

Food & Water Watch has filed suit against the USDA because the agency will not release the names of companies that have applied to switch to a voluntary program that allows for non-government poultry inspections.

A USDA poultry inspector checks carcasses as the production line moves. Photo courtesy of USDA

In its complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., the watchdog group refers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “New Poultry Inspection System” (NPIS) as a privatization deal.

Food & Water Watch contends the system results in government inspectors “evaluating up to three birds per second in broiler chicken plants, and one turkey per second in turkey slaughter facilities.”

The activist group was last in federal court in 2015 over the USDA’s New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) when their challenge was tossed by Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.    She found the group and two of its members, who she said were advancing a”myopic view” over “sheer speculation that bad things might happen,” were without standing.

As of Monday, the USDA had not filed a response to the latest federal court complaint.

Since October 2014 the nonprofit group has been asking USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to release the names of companies that applied to participate in the new inspection procedure.

“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,” asked Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in a news release about the federal court action.

USDA poultry inspectors use a variety of tests to gauge the effectiveness of food safety measures. Photo courtesy of FDA

“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. But the agency won’t even tell us which plants plan to join the program.”

The government won’t provide the names of the companies, which Food & Water Watch has requested through numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, because of protections built into federal law regarding “confidential corporate information.”

“(The requested) records consist solely of confidential future business plans that were submitted by the establishments,” USDA said in a response to Food & Water Watch.

The advocacy organization says in its legal complaint that it doesn’t want secret plans, rather, “only sought the identities of those companies that had begun operating or had requested permission to operate under the new system.”

In addition to expecting to annually prevent 5,000 foodborne illnesses from Salmonella and Campylobacter under the new inspection program, USDA officials have said the NPIS allows poultry companies to sort their own products for defects before printing the to FSIS for inspection.

USDA has said with the new system FSIS inspectors will be able to more frequently remove birds from the evisceration line for close examinations, take samples for testing, check plant sanitation, verify compliance with food safety plans and observe live birds for signs of disease or mishandling.

With the new inspection program rules, poultry companies must meet new requirements to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination, rather than addressing contamination after it occurs.

Also, all poultry facilities must perform their own microbiological testing at two points in their production process to show the two pathogens are being controlled. Those in-house tests are in addition to testing by FSIS.