Who Watches the Watchers? Livestock Self-Inspection Is A Bad Idea

In April, the United States Department of Agriculture announced that it would be turning some poultry inspection responsibilities over to poultry processing plants. This was spun as an improvement for food safety, as well as a cost-cutting and streamlining measure. The USDA pushed hard on the modernisation rhetoric, arguing that the change in inspection policies would bring about radical improvements.

Oddly enough, many people were not convinced. Because, strangely, some people seem to think that poultry processors might have some sort of conflict of interest when it comes to inspecting their own products. I can’t imagine why people might be under that impression; who better to determine if poultry products are safe and of good quality than the people selling them, I ask you?

The official story was that USDA inspectors would turn over some duties to plant employees; these duties primarily consisted of inspections for ‘visible blemishes’ like bruising and damage along with feces. Representatives claimed that this would allow the agency to focus on food safety inspections, determining whether meat was safe to eat. Of course, one of the problems here is that blemishes can potentially represent a food safety issue, as they may be signs of a sick bird or of contaminated meat. Inspectors themselves argued that the plan posed dangers, pointing out that in early iterations of the pilot programme, they saw instances of clearly diseased birds being passed, and when they tried to intervene, they were reprimanded.

The poultry industry cannot inspect itself. Even if it were the most ethical of industries, heavily concerned with public health, safety, and welfare, there would be a clear conflict of interest. Every bird rejected for sale represents a loss for the industry, which means that workers will be pushed to pass every single possible bird, even those that are marginal or clearly diseased. Workers could even face penalties for failing too many birds on the inspection line, creating a situation where where would be an active disincentive to identify potentially contaminated meat and remove it from the supply chain.

It’s more than that, though. Poultry processing occurs at incredibly high volume. Thousands of birds pass through processing facilities at extremely high speeds and workers are under fire to move as quickly as possible. In addition to setting up for animal abuse, this also sets up a situation where people will not have the time to conduct thoughtful, thorough, careful inspections, especially if they are also focusing on other activities. This is one reason USDA inspectors walk the line to begin with: because they can focus purely on food safety and quality, and they are neutral observers, because they don’t have a vested interest in whether individual birds make it to market. By turning inspection duties over to workers, the USDA is in effect setting up a very dangerous public health situation, because workers can and will miss birds in addition to feeling pressure to pass contaminated meat they do identify.

There’s a reason we have branches of government, and a reason neutral inspectors are required, and a reason people use moderators and facilitators to negotiate complex deals. It’s because humans are complex creatures who have multiple interests in mind, and because conflicts of interest can create a fundamentally hazardous or disadvantageous situation.

Members of the public rely on the USDA to be their advocate in the places they cannot go. We can’t enter poultry inspection facilities to look at the meat ourselves to determine whether it’s safe, and we don’t see whole birds before processing to look for signs of disease so we can make an informed decision about whether to use their meat. The USDA is in place to do this for us, to protect our health and safety, and the organisation has it roots in an era when the food industry was largely self-regulating and the results were catastrophic. Serious food-borne illness from contaminated products used to be the order of the day, rather than the exception.

The institution of tough inspections of food and drug products changed the landscape of the United States, and made it much safer to eat, take medications, and use personal care products. Rollbacks like this are an extremely dangerous sign, because who watches the watchers? Who holds poultry facilities accountable when USDA inspectors are driven out, forced to the end of the line, and warned to remain silent when they see diseased birds being processed for market? And how many consumers are aware of this change and how it might impact their own lives?

The agriculture industry, of course, loves this project proposal and is quite excited about it. Like the USDA, it touts all the ‘improvements’ it offers, and stresses that it will save taxpayer money and streamline meat production. Clearly, the industry has a vested interest in allowing its own workers to inspect meat for sale; it can get those pesky USDA inspectors off the line and radically lower the acceptable standards for saleable meat, all in one fell swoop. Meanwhile, consumers may be led into believing that this is an improvement, rather than the step backwards it really is; a potential return to an era when people routinely got sick and died because the producers of commercial food and drug products cared more about sales than the long-term safety of their customers.

If poultry farms are allowed to inspect themselves, who else will be? Should drug companies be allowed to skip clinical trials and release products directly? Should we stop testing packaged foods for signs of contaminants that might make people sick? Should we throw out organic certification? Should we care whether foods are processed in facilities that may contain allergens?