Senator Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY), chairwoman of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, Poultry, Marketing and Agriculture Security, introduced yesterday the Safe Meat and Poultry Act that seeks to preserve current staffing levels of USDA inspectors in meat plants at the same time the agency is promoting its proposed Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule that would reduce the federal inspection workforce. Senator Gillibrand’s bill also calls for each carcass in the nation’s poultry, beef, and hog plants be checked by a USDA inspector before it is processed. 

USDA is working on final regulations it plans to propose later this year. The proposed rule, which was published in January 2012, has received significant scrutiny from consumer groups, the inspectors union, and other entities suggesting that food safety, public health, and worker safety would be compromised.  However, these claims have not been substantiated as the chicken plants that participated in the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project have demonstrated the same food safety and worker safety performance as all other chicken plants in the United States. 

Senator Gillibrand’s new legislation would create mandatory performance standards and expand the authority of USDA to regulate new pathogens.  The legislation would also improve consumer notification for recalls of products and, for government and plant workers, the bill would provide whistleblower protection to report public health issues.  The bill would also provide for criminal penalties for intentionally marketing adulterated products and increasing enforcement action for repeat violators.  For imported products, the legislation would provide for more international audits by the Food Safety and Inspection Service and increase emphasis on prevention of pathogens, chemicals, and other types of contamination across the food safety system. 

A USDA spokesperson said that the agency does not comment on pending legislation.