Court rejects latest attack on poultry rules

Stephen Ausmus/ARSChickens are seen in this file photo. Another lawsuit challenging new USDA rules for inspecting chicken slaughterhouses has been tossed out of court.

Opponents of new poultry slaughter inspection rules have so far had no luck in being allowed to challenge the regulations in court.

A federal appeals court has shot down the latest attempt by a consumer advocacy group to challenge the rules, finding the new poultry inspection system, or NPIS, doesn’t pose a substantial risk of harm to the organization.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has upheld a lower court’s decision to throw out a lawsuit filed by the Food & Water Watch nonprofit for a lack of legal standing.

A similar case brought by a union representing poultry inspectors was also dismissed earlier this year on similar grounds, but that ruling is being appealed.

Critics of the USDA’s new poultry inspection rules claim they’re aimed at making life easier for slaughterhouses while increasing the danger of foodborne illness for consumers.

The USDA counters that its regulations will allow agency poultry inspectors to be deployed more effectively to prevent problems at such facilities.

The gist of the new system is that slaughterhouse employees will be responsible for more visual evaluation and sorting of poultry carcasses, while USDA inspectors will focus on reducing pathogen hazards throughout the plant.

Food & Water Watch complains that during a pilot project for the new system, 90 percent of non-compliance incidents were related to fecal contamination that company employees did not notice.

The recent federal appeals court ruling said this finding suggests that such workers won’t be as effective as USDA inspectors, but the group hasn’t shown these results are actually worse than under the existing system.

“Thus, they fail to plausibly allege that the regulations substantially increase the risk of foodborne illness,” the court held.

The lawsuit complained that each USDA inspector evaluates about 30 carcasses per minute under the current system, but that rate would increase to 200 or more per minute under the new rules, resulting in the processing and shipment of “unwholesome, mutilated and diseased chickens.”

The appellate court called these allegations “alarming” but held that they don’t ultimately demonstrate that food safety outcomes would be inferior to the current system.

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