Tyson, Butterball, Perdue and Pilgrim’s Pride are among the 41 companies participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s controversial New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) program, which allows companies to inspect their own slaughter lines. The task was formerly performed by trained USDA inspectors.

The NPIS system has been run as a pilot project since 1998 and plants began to switch to the new system in early 2015. Under it, company employees are responsible for identifying and dealing with defects and food safety problems.

One USDA inspector remains to actually inspect carcasses -- up to 2.33 birds per second in broiler chicken plants, or one turkey carcass per second in turkey slaughter facilities.

Grilling season concerns

Safety advocacy group Food & Water Watch is outraged that the USDA is allowing poultry companies “to police themselves.”

“As consumers get ready for the summer grilling season, they need to know which poultry plants are using privatized inspection to prioritize efficiency and profits over people,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “The USDA should never have allowed companies to police themselves, but to add insult to injury, they failed to even let consumers know which products are coming out of these plants.”

The companies participating in the program sell products under dozens of brand names in grocery stores, and to school lunch programs and other institutions. The USDA is actively encouraging more plants to participate and the program is open to all poultry plants. The agency estimated that 99.9 percent of all domestic poultry would be produced by plants operating under the new rules.

How consumers can avoid NPIS products

Hauter says that depends upon the program being a success – and consumers can help derail it by avoiding the products at the grocery store. They can consult alist of plants -- obtained by Food & Water Watch through the Freedom of Information Act – when making buying decisions.

“People shouldn’t have to research whether the chicken they buy at the supermarket was actually inspected by trained government inspectors,” said Hauter. “But thanks to years of lobbying by big poultry companies to deregulate inspections, industry profits have prevailed over food safety.”

On December 22, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to hear a lawsuit filed by Food & Water Watch and its members challenging the new rules as unlawful because they gave private poultry company employees the responsibility to find and condemn adulterated poultry instead of federal inspectors. A separate lawsuit was filed by the union representing USDA inspectors and is currently being reviewed the appeals court.