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GAO: Poultry Plan Is Based on Bad Data

Washington — The USDA has used incomplete and antiquated data in support of its plan to extend new poultry inspection procedures to plants across the country, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office scheduled for public release on Wednesday.

As a result, there are “questions about the validity” of the USDA’s conclusions that the procedures, now used by a limited number of poultry plants under a pilot program, are more effective than the traditional approach at reducing pathogens such as salmonella, the GAO found.

The report was requested by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who previously expressed concerns about the pilot program because it allows plants to dramatically speed up processing lines and replace many USDA inspectors with poultry company employees. For decades, government poultry inspectors have been stationed along processing lines to identify contaminated and diseased carcasses.

GAO auditors found that the USDA, in analyzing whether the pilot inspection program improved plants’ efficiency, used data in part collected from plants more than 11 years ago and other data from a study that was more than 20 years old. The USDA has said its proposal aims to save money for taxpayers and consumers through greater efficiency.

The report also criticized the USDA for applying the data it collected from chicken plants to turkey plants.

In addition, the GAO report faulted the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for failing to collect and analyze data about the effectiveness of inspections in a similar pilot program in pork plants.

The agency began pilot inspection programs in 1998 at chicken, turkey and pork slaughterhouses. In a December 2011 submission to the White House Office of Informationand Regulatory Affairs, the USDA proposed regulations that would allow the agency to expand the programs from the 29 pilot plants to most of the country’s 239 chicken and 96 turkey plants. The White House office reviewed them and returned them to the USDA the following month, and the proposed regulations were published on Jan. 27, 2012.