A sweeping rule sent to the White House by the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month would eviscerate the poultry inspection standards that currently protect consumers from tainted chicken and turkey, many experts say.

Euphemistically called the “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection” rule, the statute would speed up processing lines and reduce the number of inspectors overseeing their operation, while simultaneously handing key inspection duties over to poultry companies’ employees.

“[The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service] anticipates that this proposed rule would provide the framework for action to provide public health-based inspection in all establishments that slaughter amenable poultry species,” according to the rule’s official summary. 

But rather than improving slaughterhouse practices in the service of public health, the changes proposed under the rule are actually “a prescription for disaster” that would lead to higher incidences of salmonella and other pathogens, according to Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety.

“You’re going to have sick chickens going through the line -- and speeding up the line and having it self-inspected just increases the chances of sick chickens going through,” he said. “You can coat them in as many chemicals as you want but you’re still going to have salmonella deep within the chicken that gets to the consumer.”

The U.S. poultry inspection regime currently in place would be almost completely overhauled under the rule, which Hanson and other advocates like Food & Water Watch senior lobbyist Tony Corbo believe is on track to be fully approved without further public input in the near future -- perhaps as early as this week, according to Corbo.

As of today, each USDA inspector is permitted to inspect only up to 35 chicken carcasses per minute, and an individual processing line cannot run at a speed higher than 140 carcasses per minute. A line running at maximum speed, therefore, must have four licensed USDA inspectors on duty at all times.

Under the “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection” rule, those standards would be significantly loosened. A processing line could run at 170 carcasses per minute, and only one inspector -- employed by the company that owns the processing plant -- would be required to be on duty.  

“You’re reducing the number of USDA inspectors in those plants on the slaughter line and turning those responsibilities over to the companies’ employees to perform, and that’s an inherent conflict of interest there,” Corbo said. “That’s self-regulation. You’re not going to get company employees slowing down or stopping the production lines when they see problems. They’re getting paid to keep the lines going.”

An increase in the incidence of salmonella in the U.S. could have a real impact on consumers, as the pathogen already represents a major threat to public health. Salmonella “is estimated to cause 1.2 million illnesses in the United States, with about 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths” each year, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study of more than 300 raw chicken breasts released by Consumer Reports earlier this year found that 10.8 percent harbored salmonella, while 65.2 percent tested positive for E. coli. Overall, about 97 percent of the breasts tested contained harmful bacteria, according to the study.

The persistence of salmonella in the United States is in large part a result of lax U.S. regulations. More consumer health-focused countries like Denmark and Sweden have what are known as “zero salmonella” policies that require farms and processing plants to cease operation if the pathogen is detected in their facilities or their poultry. But the U.S. doesn’t even consider salmonella to be an “adulterant,” meaning that inspectors do not have the power to stop chickens and turkeys found to be contaminated with the pathogen from going to market.

Though some inspectors would be hired by plants to do additional testing under the “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection” rule, they would have little ability to act on the results of their tests, according to Corbo.

“This rule does not address that basic hole in the regulations,” he said. “You can throw as many inspectors doing testing and everything else in there, but all the government can do now if a company fails a testing for salmonella is post the company’s name and a notice on their website. They can’t shut the plant down.”

Some observers disagree, however, including Yvonne Vissier Thaxton, a professor of poultry science at the University of Arkansas. She says that “strong evidence” from pilot studies suggests that the proposed changes to the inspection system would not diminish food safety because there is a “misconception” that visual inspection reduces contamination rates.

“The available data support the premise that using plant employees trained to evaluate birds for quality related defects unrelated to food safety is very effective and it releases USDA inspectors to take actions that will impact food safety,” Thaxton said via email.

Thaxton pointed out that a number of studies, including a 1994 report commissioned by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, back up her assertion.

“The federal inspection system falls short in protecting the public from the most serious health risks caused by microbial contamination,” the 1994 study states. “Resources that could be more effectively used in a risk-based system are drained away by labor-intensive inspection procedures and inflexible inspection schedules.”

In the intervening years much has changed, but one thing is constant: There is big money at stake. The USDA has estimated that the “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection” rule would clear the way for 6 percent more chickens and turkeys to be processed without adding employees. That translates to savings of three cents per bird, or more than $256 million per year, according to estimates by the USDA, which expects to save about $90 million in payroll costs over three years if the rule is instituted. The price of poultry for consumers may go down, but it's not clear at what cost.