Back when I was in high school, the state in which I was living at the time was having difficulty getting a sufficiently large percentage of students to pass their standardized tests. Their solution to this problem, of course, was to dumb down the tests, to make it easier for badly educated children to pass them. It solved the problem (kids aren’t passing the exams) without really solving the problem (the kids are not well educated enough to pass the exams).
The USDA seems to be adopting a similar strategy in their poultry inspection program. For reasons which have absolutely nothing whatever to do with consumer safety (they claim they are “modernizing an outdated system” but mostly, the move will allow them to eliminate about 800 jobs, and will allow the plants to chew through 70% more birds by speeding the disassembly lines up even more), the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) wants to allow individual poultry plants to provide their own inspectors rather than use inspectors supplied and trained (and paid) by the government. (This appears to be the original policy document, which goes into detail about the policy and is even more hair-raising than the New York Times article.)
Apparently, they’ve been trying this program in pilot plants, with the results you’d expect — the “inspectors” are being placed at the end of the line where they can’t see what’s going on, and the increased speed of the lines (up to 200 birds per minute, from the current 140) makes it even less likely that defects will be spotted. (200 birds a minute is more than three birds per second. How much detail — mold, disease, defects — can you see if you’re looking at three birds per second?)
To the above point, I’d like to add that the main humane issue in the processing of poultry (and other animals) is the unbelievably immense number of birds being slaughtered — this results in chickens going through part of the slaughter process conscious, among other horrifying things (workers losing fingers; consumers contracting salmonella). Even assuming multiple lines, how do you humanely slaughter three chickens per second? How do you “oversee” such a process? Apparently the USDA has decided to “overlook” it instead.
Increasing the speed of the lines by 70% and reducing the effectiveness of oversight does not sound like an idea with the best interests of either the birds or the consumers at heart. No wonder the poultry industry has “applauded the Agriculture Department decision.”
(Bonus: check out the photo in that article, of “chickens in an egg farm”. How many hens are crammed into that tiny space? At least they’re not debeaked….)