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Chicken is the top-selling meat in the United States. The average American eats 84 pounds a year, more chicken than beef or pork. Sorry red meat, chicken is what's for dinner. And now the USDA is proposing a fundamental change in the way that poultry makes it to the American dinner table.
As early as next week, the government will end debate on a cost-cutting, modernization proposal it hopes to fully implement by the end of the year. A plan that is setting off alarm bells among food science watchdogs because it turns over most of the chicken inspection duties to the companies that produce the birds for sale.
The USDA hopes to save $85 million over three years by laying off 1,000 government inspectors and turning over their duties to company monitors who will staff the poultry processing lines in plants across the country.
The poultry companies expect to save more than $250 million a year because they, in turn will be allowed to speed up the processing lines to a dizzying 175 birds per minute with one USDA inspector at the end of the line. Currently, traditional poultry lines move at a maximum of 90 birds per minute, with up to three USDA inspectors on line.
Whistleblower inspectors opposed to the new USDA rule say the companies cannot be trusted to watch over themselves. They contend that companies routinely pressure their employees not to stop the line or slow it down, making thorough inspection for contaminants, tumors and evidence of disease nearly impossible. "At that speed, it's all a blur," one current inspector tells ABC News.
According to OMB Watch, a government accountability newsletter, cutbacks at the USDA have coincided with a significant rise in salmonella outbreaks. The group says 2010 was a record year for salmonella infection and 2011 saw 103 poultry, egg and meat recalls because of disease-causing bacteria, the most in nearly 10 years.
The USDA, which has been running a pilot program of the changes in 20 US poultry plants, says the new system is not about cost-cutting, but about bringing food safety up to date. In background briefings, the agency will not answer on the record questions posed by ABC News, USDA says it plans on increasing the number of scientific tests to look for microbiotic disease invisible to human eye inspectors. But the agency has not been able to furnish data that shows an increase in lab testing during the 12 year pilot program.
Watchdog groups insist a combination of increased testing and government inspection is needed to lower salmonella and other disease outbreaks from chicken. The National Chicken Council says on its website that while "plant employees would have an expanded role in inspecting carcasses," USDA inspectors will still be in the plant. And "we are confident that modernizing the poultry inspection system will enable us to build on our success in providing delicious, safe and wholesome food to our customers."