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Proposed change to poultry inspection protocol kept secret by USDA

| Saturday, July 12, 2014, 8:15 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A member of Congress and several food and worker safety groups are calling for the Department of Agriculture to publicly release a copy of a proposed rule that would dramatically change how chickens and turkeys are inspected in slaughterhouses.

The draft version of the final rule ­— which has been in the making for more than two years — was sent to the White House's Office of Management and Budget on Thursday for review, but the USDA will not release a copy to the public.

USDA officials said in a prepared statement that the agency has taken into account concerns raised by a variety of groups, but that it will not discuss publicly how the rule may have been altered.

“Although we do not discuss the specifics of the rule under review, the draft rule has been significantly informed by the feedback we received from our stakeholders, as well as from our interagency partners such as the Department of Labor,” USDA said in a prepared statement.

The department said that under the new inspection system, pathogen testing will be increased along with other changes, which will result in the number of food-borne illnesses dropping by more than 5,000 annually.

An earlier version of the poultry rule was proposed on Jan. 27, 2012, and was the subject of widespread criticism by civil rights, occupational health and food safety groups.

The top concerns were over a proposal to cut USDA inspectors by 40 percent, and another that would increase processing line speeds by more than 20 percent.

More than 175,000 comments were submitted during the public comment period, a majority of them opposed to the proposed inspection rule.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said that, because the USDA will not release the final draft version, it is unclear whether any of the concerns about worker and food safety have been addressed. She is calling for the new version of the rule to be published, followed by a 120-day comment period and public meetings around the country.

“We need more transparency, and public health stakeholders need to receive due consideration,” DeLauro said in a prepared statement.

OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has 90 days to review the draft regulation. It may extend the review period once, for 30 days. After the review, if it is approved by OMB, the rule would be published in the Federal Register and would be final.

In addition to DeLauro, Food & Water Watch and the Center for Progressive Reform — nonprofit consumer advocacy groups — said USDA has indicated that the rule has been “significantly changed” and that as such it should be reopened for public review.

“It is not without precedent,” said Tony Corbo, a Food & Water Watch lobbyist. “They could do this.”

Added Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform: “By the time we see it, it will be law. They need to open it up. Otherwise, it will be too late to do anything about it.”

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