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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Poultry Rules Pose no Safety Threat, D.C. Circuit Finds

(CN) - Food and Water Watch, a food-safety advocacy group, cannot challenge new poultry-inspection rules that reduce the number of federal inspectors on the slaughter line, the D.C. Circuit ruled.

The rules, which were announced on July 31, 2014, give poultry plant operators more of a role in inspecting slaughter chickens for quality defects, rather than leaving sorting and evaluation solely to federal inspectors.

Under the new rules, "establishments [would] be required to sort carcasses, to dispose of carcasses that must be condemned, and to conduct any necessary trimming or reprocessing activities before carcasses are presented to the online [Food Safety and Inspection Service] carcass inspector," according to court records.

Chicken carcasses pass along a production line for the inspector at a rate of 175 birds per minute, and turkey carcasses pass at a rate of 55 birds per minute, court records show.

Under the new system, plant workers now sort poultry carcasses, which are presented to only one federal inspector at the end of the slaughter line.

Officials with the U.S. Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service say the new approach is more efficient than the old inspection procedure and will free up inspectors, allowing them to better monitor overall plant processes and verify compliance with food safety rules.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack endorsed the plan, saying it is crucial to modernize the nation's poultry inspection process.

Food and Water Watch claimed the new inspection process will place consumers at a greater risk of foodborne illness.

But in a lengthy ruling, U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson found that the food safety watchdog lacks standing to sue.

"Because plaintiffs have filed this suit in a court of limited jurisdiction, they must demonstrate at the outset that they have, or will have, an injury-in-fact that is traceable to the actions of the defendants and that relief from this court can address," Jackson wrote earlier this year. "This court concludes that Plaintiffs have failed to mount this hurdle."

The D.C. Circuit affirmed Jackson's decision Tuesday.

"A careful examination of plaintiffs' allegations demonstrates that they have not plausibly alleged that the [New Poultry Inspection System, or NPIS] substantially increases the risk of foodborne illness compared to the existing inspection systems," Judge Robert Wilkins wrote for a three-judge panel.

There is no statistically significant evidence that Salmonella rates will be higher in chicken processed under the new inspection process, according to the ruling.

"Although plaintiffs fault defendants for failing to account for a reduction in online inspectors in defendants' risk assessment, plaintiffs' failure to account for the increase in offline inspections and their attendant impact on poultry production prevents us from inferring that the NPIS as a whole substantially increases the risk of foodborne illness," Wilkins wrote.

The advocacy group and two individual plaintiffs, Margaret Sowerwine and Jane Foran, say they have lost confidence in the USDA's inspection and will be forced to purchase more expensive chicken from farmer's markets or avoid chicken altogether.

But these avoidance costs are self-inflicted injuries and are not sufficient to establish standing, the D.C. Circuit ruled.

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