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USDA overhauls decades-old poultry inspections in effort to improve food safety

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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is overhauling poultry plant inspections for the first time in more than 50 years, a move it says could result in 5,000 fewer foodborne illnesses each year.

Final rules announced Thursday would reduce the number of government poultry inspectors. But those who remain will focus more on food safety than on quality, requiring them to pull more birds off the line for closer inspections and encouraging more testing for pathogens. More inspectors would check the facilities to make sure they are clean.

The changes would be voluntary, but many of the country's largest poultry companies are expected to opt in. The chicken and turkey industries swiftly praised the new rules, saying they would modernize their business.

Federal law requires that government inspectors be present in poultry processing plants. Right now, many USDA inspectors stand in one place on the production line and check for visual defects. This doesn't do much to ensure the birds are safe to eat, since common poultry pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter are invisible.

The new rules would better train inspectors to find hazards in the plant and would require all companies — whether they opt in or not — to do additional testing for pathogens.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the changes take into account current science, updating the inspection system from 1950s thinking that visual defects meant safety problems.

"This is a significant opportunity to bring the inspection system into the 21st century," he said.

USDA originally proposed the rule in January 2012, saying the reduction in inspectors would save companies and taxpayers money while also decreasing pathogens in the food supply. Consumer groups have said an overhaul is necessary but criticized the proposal, saying it would shift too much of the inspection burden to the industry.

Those same groups expressed disappointment with the new rule, saying the decreased overall number of inspectors could endanger consumer health.

Wenonah Hauter of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch called it a "gift from the Obama administration to the industry" while Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said USDA "missed the boat" on designing a new system and put budget savings ahead of food safety.

The final rule abandons a controversial part of the original proposal that would have allowed companies to increase the speeds of processing lines in chicken plants. USDA said that increasing line speeds wouldn't affect food safety, but consumer groups argued it could make it harder to detect obvious contamination and harm worker safety.

USDA said the number of inspectors at poultry plants could be reduced by around a fourth if all companies opted into the proposal. Some companies — especially smaller ones — may not choose the new system, however, meaning more inspectors would stay in their jobs. USDA said the reductions would mostly come through attrition, and remaining workers would be placed in other agency jobs.

Salmonella and campylobacter are commonly found in poultry and the two top foodborne pathogens that make people sick in the United States. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that salmonella causes around 1.2 million illnesses in the United States every year, including 450 deaths.

There have been several large outbreaks of salmonella in poultry in recent years. In July, California-based Foster Farms issued a recall after salmonella illnesses had been linked to their products for more than a year. That chicken has been linked to 634 illnesses in 29 states and Puerto Rico.

In 2011, an outbreak of salmonella linked to ground turkey products sickened 136 people and killed one, prompting a recall 36 million pounds of meat.

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mcjalonick

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