Opinion: Faster isn’t necessarily better when it comes to poultry inspection

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Dave Dickey

I love Lucy (having just declared that,  Lucys all over the world probably have that deer-in-a-headlights look, but relax ladies).

I’m talking about the TV series that starred Desi Arnez, Vivian Vance, William Frawley and one of the great comedians of the ages,  Lucille Ball.

The series ran from 1951 to 1957 and in four of its six years on the air was the most watched series on television.  Lucille knows comedy acting in all time classic moments including : “Vitameatavegamin”, “Stomping Grapes”, and “Too Much Yeast”.

But my all-time favorite, without a doubt, is the candy factory.

In this episode named ”Job Switching”,  Lucy and Ethel go to work in a candy factory because their husbands, Ricky and Fred, are upset about their ladies’ spending habits.

The boys stay home and do housework.

At the time, the episode created quite a buzz about the roles of married women and men.

But doesn’t it also say something about assembly lines in general?

If you go too fast, mistakes happen.

And that brings me to the current raging debate between the National Chicken Council who looks out for the interests of Big Ag companies including Tyson, Pilgrims Pride, Sanderson Farms as well as a raft of others and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That’s because last month, the National Chicken Council petitioned USDA to speed up poultry processing lines to whatever speed individual corporations deem appropriate.

Right now, for poultry producers adhering to USDA’s New Poultry Inspection Service, the max speed is 140 birds per line per minute.  That means federal inspectors are responsible for inspecting 2.33 birds  per second.

Poultry companies without the USDA’s new inspection service are limited to a processing speed of 120 birds per minute. In order to increase processing speed to 140 birds per minute, companies have to conduct new microbiological tests.

So you would think the National Chicken Council would be happy with the 140 birds a minute rate under the USDA’s new poultry inspection service.

But they are just the opposite.

They are furious at the USDA because during the development of the new inspection system, 20 plants were allowed to run lines at 175 birds a minute.

Now that the new inspection system is the law of the land, those companies will get to continue running at 175 birds a minute while any company now adhering to the system is stuck at a cap of  140 birds a minute.

During the public comment period of the New Poultry Inspection Service, the USDA took heavy criticism from animal activists as well as labor and environmental groups saying 175 birds a minute amounted the Lucy and the Chocolate Factory – big mistakes endangering poultry workers and consumers alike.

But the National Chicken Council isn’t asking USDA for line parity.

Rather it wants line limit speeds to be waived entirely, claiming the U.S. chicken industry is becoming non-competitive with German and Brazil, which run their poultry processing lines at 200 birds a minute or better.

So the bottom line question is how are companies adhering to the new poultry inspection service performing at 140 birds a minute?

The answer is terrible.

Food and Water Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request to check violations detected under NPIS. Gross alert!

The sixth bird of the ten-bird sample contained a piece of intestine that was approximately 1/8? in length, fecal material as observed to be at the end of the intestine. The fecal material was approximately 1/16? in length, green in color, and pasty in consistency.

Anybody ready for dinner?

It turns out the USDA’s inspection service is finding way too many problems at 140 birds a minute.

And the National Chicken Council wants to go faster?

Here’s hoping USDA and Secretary Sonny Perdue don’t cave in.

For Lucy, it was some bungled chocolate.  For us, it’s public safety.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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