WASHINGTON – The US Department of Agriculture's plan to modernize poultry inspection has gained more detractors. At least 60 members of Congress added their names to a letter dated March 17 and addressed to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to suspend action on the new poultry processing rule.

The Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule would allow company employees in most poultry slaughter plants to check eviscerated carcasses for visual defects such as bruising and sorting out those that are unlikely to pass federal inspection. A single federal inspector would be stationed at the end of the line, just before the chill tank, to conduct a final visual inspection. Additionally, plants would be permitted to run their evisceration lines at higher speeds than allowed by the existing inspection systems.

The Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule builds on the HACCP-based Inspection Models Program (HIMP), a pilot program that has been running at 20 plants since 1998. USDA said HIMP plants perform as well, or better than, other plants in terms of reducing contamination of poultry carcasses by pathogens.

Butopponents of the new rule, including some members of Congress, have raised concerns that USDA hasn't given enough consideration to the rule's potential impact on food safety, worker safety and animal welfare, among other issues. In their letter to Vilsack, the members of Congress expressed grave concerns that the new rule could undermine food safety and animal welfare policies.

"We must improve poultry inspection and reduce contamination from pathogens associated with poultry such asSalmonellaandCampylobacter. However, it is unclear whether FSIS's poultry slaughter proposal will actually reduce illness rates; in fact, there is evidence that rates may increase."

The letter also noted a "connection between humane treatment and food safety". The rule would allow poultry slaughter companies to increase line speeds, but "faster line speeds also cause more birds to bypass backup slaughter devices and enter the scalding tank alive", the letter states.

However, in defense of the new poultry slaughter rule industry stakeholders have argued, for example, that faster line speeds wouldn't occur overnight — plants would need to install new systems to achieve the new maximum line speeds.

Additionally, the National Chicken Council and US Poultry & Egg Association have refuted claims that the new rule would jeopardizeworker safety.

Also, other members of Congress have written to Vilsack in support of the new slaughter inspection rule. A letter to Vilsack dated Dec. 12 noted that "...the peer-reviewed risk assessment included in the proposed rule demonstrates that at least 5,000 foodborne illnesses would be prevented if the poultry inspection system were modernized. Additionally, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) projects that almost $80 million in health care costs would be saved on an annual basis by preventing foodborne illnesses."