WASHINGTON – Federal food inspectors and consumer groups plan to rally against proposed federal regulations they claim would partially privatize poultry inspections and increase the number of birds federal inspectors must examine. The protest is planned for April 2 in front of the US Department of Agriculture building.

Groups participating in the event include Food Safety and Inspection Service employees, Food & Water Watch, Consumer Federation of America, National Consumers League and Government Accountability Project.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced Jan. 20 an overhaul of chicken and turkey inspections. Under the USDA program, company employees in most chicken and turkey slaughter plants would have the responsibility for checking 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.

Vilsack said the new system would help avoid 5,200 cases of foodborne illness per year by improving the microbiological profile of raw chicken and turkey. It would also produce savings of $90 million over three years, mostly in reduced personnel costs. Industry’s production costs could decline by at least $256 million per year, largely through faster line speeds, according to USDA estimates.

Industry trade groups such as the National Chicken Council (NCC) and National Turkey Federation (NTF) have expressed support for the new program; however activists opposed it as a “privatization” of the federal government’s responsibility for food safety.