A group of Congress members on Monday pushed USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to withdraw a proposed rule that would revamp how poultry processing in the U.S. is monitored.
Nearly 70 House members – one Republican and 67 Democrats – signed the letter. If it were to be implemented, they say, the rule would replace current inspection procedures with a system that undermines food safety, worker safety and animal welfare.
Proposed in early 2012, USDA said the rule would refocus Food Safety and Inspection Service workers to "critical food safety tasks," as opposed to tasks it says are not related to food safety, like identifying visual defects. Changes would also permit faster line speeds and reduce the number of on-line carcass inspectors to one.
Based on pilot program performance, USDA claimed the changes would result in lower rates of salmonella. A risk assessment also found that the changes could prevent more than 5,000 foodborne illnesses and save $80 million in health care costs annually.
But the Congress members aren't sold on the deal. "While we strongly support modernizing our food safety system and making it more efficient, modernization should not occur at the expense of public health, worker safety, or animal welfare," they argued in their opposition letter.
Led by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Jim Moran, D-Va., Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the group suggested that a September, 2013, Government Accountability Office report points to issues with the proposed changes.
They say the GAO report questions data being used by FSIS to support USDA's claims of improved food safety benefits in this rule.
"We therefore harbor serious concerns over what we believe are the Food Safety Inspection Service's inadequate considerations to date of these issues in promulgating this rule…We urge FSIS to withdraw the proposed rule until the agency has thoroughly addressed its impact on the public, workers, and animals and adherence to good commercial practices," they wrote.
USDA entertained comments on the proposal starting in January, 2012, and extended the comment period in April to allow time for more comments. It ended May 29, 2012.
The Representatives, however, say the proposal itself was crafted with limited stakeholder engagement compared to other proposals made by the agency.
Counter to the House members' Monday letter, another group of 13 Senators last December suggested that the changes would offer safety and savings, urging Vilsack to release a timeline for sending the proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget, and an implementation timeline.