WASHINGTON – A suit was filed in federal court on Sept. 11 by Food & Water Watch to stop implementation of the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) rules – which it charges would transfer key food-safety inspection functions to poultry companies with limited oversight by USDA inspectors.

“These rules essentially privatize poultry inspection, and pave the way for others in the meat industry to police themselves,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “The USDA’s decision to embrace the scheme – an initiative lobbied for by the meat industry for more than a decade– flies in the face of the agency’s mandate to protect consumers. What’s more, we believe it’s illegal.”

The group said the new system violates the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), a law passed in 1957 that gives USDA the authority to protect consumer health and welfare by assuring that poultry products are wholesome, not adulterated, and properly marked, labeled and packaged. It further alleges that NPIS violates a number of statutory requirements, including the PPIA’s prescription that federal government inspectors, and not poultry slaughter establishment staff, are responsible for condemning adulterated young chicken and turkey carcasses.

The NPIS rules also violate the PPIA’s requirement that federal inspectors supervise slaughter establishment reprocessing, which is done to avoid the condemnation of adulterated birds (essentially removing problematic chicken parts to allow the rest of the bird to pass inspection), the suit also states.

This suit is being brought by Food & Water Watch, on behalf of itself and its members, who include the two other individual plaintiffs, Margaret Sowerwine and Jane Foran. Defendants are Secretary Vilsack and other officials from the USDA and its Food Safety and Inspection Service. The suit claims consumers will be hurt by NPIS, and it objects to the process by which the rule was implemented--there was no opportunity for oral comments at a public meeting, the group pointed to as one such example. The group further charges there were also elements that changed in the final rule that were not even hinted at in the proposed rule for public review.

Under the NPIS rules, company employees will be responsible for removing adulterated product from slaughter lines at their own discretion. The new rules do not mandate training for these company inspectors; whereas USDA inspectors undergo extensive training to allow them to fulfill these tasks under the current inspection system, the group said.

The group detailed results of an analysis it had done with federal government documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request in comments it submitted to the USDA on May 29, 2012. It said their analysis found that for 11 young chicken and three young turkey plants participating in a pilot program used to design this change in inspection rules, for the first shift of production in those plants from March to August 2011, establishment personnel missed more than 30 percent of conditions on chickens including blisters, bruises, external mutilation, fractures, sores and scabs, and 60 percent of dressing defects such as the presence of feathers, oil glands and trachea. This analysis also found company employees missed more than 30 percent of conditions on turkeys that includes blisters, bruises, external mutilation, fractures, sores, and scabs, and 87 percent of dressing defects such as the presence of feathers, oil glands and trachea, the group charges.