PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
In President Obama’s budget presented on Wednesday, one of the provisions calls for cutting back on food inspection, particularly of poultry, cutting back federal inspectors.
Now joining us to talk about why this matters is Tony Corbo. He’s a senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food and Water Watch. He’s responsible for food-related legislative regulatory issues that come before Congress and the executive branch.
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Thanks for joining us, Tony.
TONY CORBO, SENIOR LOBBYIST, FOOD AND WATER WATCH: Well, thanks for having me on.
Jay: So if I understand it correctly, the plan is—and the budget reflects this plan—to cut back on U.S. meat and poultry inspectors and let the industry essentially inspect itself. So what’s wrong with that?
Corbo: What’s wrong with that is that having USDA inspectors in these plants provides an unbiased view of what is going on in those plants from a food safety standpoint, from a sanitation standpoint. And so what the administration is proposing is to turn over a major proportion of the inspection duties over to the companies, where the company employees will be doing the jobs of the USDA inspectors. There’ll be a token USDA inspection force left in these plants.
Jay: So what evidence is the government going on, is President Obama’s administration going on that this is okay? There have been some pilot programs on this. What have they shown?
Corbo: Well, the pilot programs have been running since the late 1990s. And what the pilots have shown is that in a lot of these plants—and there are 20 plants, 20 chicken plants where they’ve used this new inspection model where they turned over the inspection responsibilities over to the companies—and they’ve also increased the line speedsn in these facilities—that the company-paid inspectors really do not catch a lot of the quality defects that USDA alleges that the companies can do better than a USDA inspector. And the other thing is that the plants do not have lower salmonella rates than those plants that receive conventional inspection.
What brought this whole regulation about, this proposed regulation, is the fact that Obama two years ago issued an executive order asking the federal government agencies to look at regulations that could be eliminated and to have industry weigh in as to which regulations they consider to be onerous or redundant. And, of course, the poultry industry stepped up to the plate and said, we want fewer inspectors in these plants.
Jay: Now, but you just said that the self-inspected plants do not have lower rates of salmonella. But isn’t the point do they have higher rates?
Corbo: They do. I mean, when the administration proposed their regulation, they had a report doing an evaluation of these pilot plants. And it showed the last two years of data that they collected, that the pilot plants had actually higher salmonella rates than the conventionally inspected plants. And lo and behold, just this past month—USDA does a monthly report on the testing that the government does in these plants to test to see if the salmonella rates are either high or low, and two of the pilot plants showed up as failing the salmonella test.
So here’s the ultimate irony. The administration keeps on going around and saying that this new model, this new inspection model is going to be able to reduce salmonella, and yet all of the evidence points the other way.
Jay: Now, if I understand it correctly—and to be transparent about this, I’m getting this from your press release—this is all—we have not had a chance to research this ourselves very far. But according to your press release, they’re only—the federal government’s only going to save about $90 million over three years with this self-inspection. I mean, that seems a complete pittance given the size of the budget. Yet this in theory could give rise to some danger. What is the logic here?
Corbo: Well, I mean, that’s one of the questions that we’ve raised all along, that, you know, when you’re talking about a $1 trillion deficit and you’re talking about saving $90 million over three years, you know, why go through all of this? And it just seems that what the administration, especially the White House—and there’s been—and the office of management and budget is the one that’s been driving this deregulatory move by the administration—is that the industry, by being able to increase production to 175 birds per minute, will stand to gain $260 million a year, adding to their bottom line, because they’ll be able to increase production and have fewer regulations to deal with.
Jay: But why can’t they increase the lines and still have federal inspectors?
Corbo: Well, because the argument is that you can’t visually catch all of this stuff. Right now, the way the line speeds are regulated at USDA, each USDA inspector can only look at up to 35 birds per minute. And so if you’re going to eliminate that particular regulation—they will have a token—they will have one inspector. They will have one inspector remaining at the end of the line under this new model they’re talking about.
But that one inspector will have to look at 175 birds a minute. That means every third of a second, a chicken will be buzzing by. You’re not going to catch anything. I don’t care how good you are as an inspector, whether you’re a USDA inspector or a company inspector. You’re not going to see anything.
Jay: So I don’t understand. Why don’t they charge—if they’re going to pay their own inspectors, why don’t—and they want to save money, why don’t they make the poultry companies pay for the federal inspectors, that at least there’d be independent inspectors?
Corbo: Right. But the problem is is that in other places where that’s been done, you compromise the work of the government inspector, because the companies will constantly remind you that you’re being paid by them. And so you want to have a—this is a public health program. It’s—to have USDA inspectors in these plants is to protect the public’s health. And it should be funded through regular tax dollars, rather than having the industry pay for it.
Jay: Now, I don’t understand. From the point of view of the industry, doesn’t it make them more liable? I mean, if there is salmonella and they get sued, at least now they can blame it on the federal inspectors to some extent. Now if there’s a problem, they’re going to have to take the whole blame.
Corbo: Except for the fact that right now the government does not have the legal authority to regulate salmonella in these plants. The best they can do is to publish on a monthly basis the plants that have failed. Essentially it’s a report card. You know, the government has these standards. If the companies fail the standards, all they get is this little slap on the wrist. They get their names published, you know, on a monthly report card. The USDA cannot shut these plants down. They don’t have the legal authority. They’ve lost court cases in the past trying to regulate salmonella.
And that’s our argument. If you really want to regulate food-borne pathogens in these plants, then go to Congress and have those court decisions overturned, have the Congress give you the legal authority to shut down a plant that has high rates of salmonella that could cause food-borne illness, that could sicken, you know, thousands of people. That’s our argument here.
Jay: It boggles the mind. I would think most people think that’s actually what’s happening, that there is that kind of regulation.
Corbo: It does. I mean, the thing is that the USDA has the legal authority to shut down a plant for e. coli and hamburger meat, but it does not have the legal authority to shut down a chicken plant for having salmonella. Actually, you can’t even do that—we cannot shut down a beef plant that has high rates of salmonella. Salmonella, for some reason the courts have ruled that USDA does not have the authority to shut a place down for having high levels of salmonella.
Jay: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Tony.
Corbo: Alright. Thank you.
Jay: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.