CHAPEL HILL – Fewer federal inspectors could be required in poultry processing plants soon if the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture approves the proposed change. Supporters of the regulation modification, including N.C. Senator Kay Hagan, have said that it will allow processing to speed up, increasing profits in an industry which already contributes nearly $13 billion to our state’s economy.

The proposed regulation seeks to transfer the responsibility of the inspections to employees of the chicken plant.

WCHL’s resident science expert Jeff Danner said that this change does not address the real contamination concerns. He said that 97 percent of the chicken breasts tested carried bacteria that could make you sick, according to a study conducted by Consumer Reports in December.

Currently, a chicken processing plant is required to have federal inspectors on site—as many as four. Each inspector can examine 35 birds a minute—that’s as many as 140 chickens per minute.

“The theory is that they [plant employees] will be able to do the same or an even better job of pulling out these damaged or contaminated birds by having more people, so now they will be allowed to process about 175 chickens,” Danner said.

An inspector is looking for three things, Danner explained: damage to the chickens, left over feathers, and/or feces.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last updated chicken and poultry inspection standards in 1957. In a news release, Hagan said that under the new rule, plant employees will perform more quality assurance tasks, such as detecting visible carcass defects. She asserted that is would free up federal inspectors to focus on sanitation standards, blood testing, and antimicrobial controls throughout the entire production process.

However, this proposed change, Danner said, has very little to do with food safety from the perspective of a consumer.

“What they are looking at is just taking advantage of the capital that they have in place and their labor cost. It is the same equipment, the same building, and in theory, the same number of workers,” Danner said. “Their expenses are the same, but now they can spread those expenses over the 175 birds a minute instead of the 140 birds a minute. Their profit margin would go up in that circumstance.”

Another contributor to the contamination problem is that some bacteria found on chickens have become resistant to antibiotics.

“Big chicken plants use antibiotics from the day chickens are born. This is not intended to keep them well. The low-level use of antibiotics has been shown over many decades to help the chickens grow faster through some mechanisms that are not entirely understood. What this means is that all of those chickens have low-level doses of antibiotics within them all the time—so that gives the bacteria living with in them the chance to develop drug resistance.”

Danner added that after the chickens are slaughtered and inspected, the carcasses have to be chilled so that the meat doesn’t spoil. All of the chickens that pass the inspection are thrown into large vats of cold water.

Hundreds of carcasses are in the same pool of water, and that is how the bacteria are spread. This is another source of the contamination problem, according to Danner.

In Europe and Canada, he said chicken producers are converting to air rather than water coolers, which reduce the carcass-to-carcass-transfer of bacteria.