Should chicken processors be allowed to self-police?

How chicken and turkey are inspected at processing plants and who is responsible for food safety is at the center of a battle between the government, consumer groups and unions. What's at stake is the safety of the food that you eat.

The food safety process at poultry plants has long involved using a team of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors to evaluate whether the carcasses headed out the door are safe for consumption. But now a program that would replace one-quarter of government inspectors with employees of the poultry companies, as well as speed up how many birds can be processed, is being expanded, and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is suing to halt it.

Among the biggest concerns, according to the union lawsuit (pdf) filed this week, is that inspectors who had been responsible for 35 birds per minute would now have to inspect 140 per minute. That just isn't possible, the union said.

"The USDA's new inspection process flies in the face of reality and will allow potentially contaminated and diseased poultry to be sold to American consumers," AFGE President J. David Cox said in a statement. "It's ridiculous, dangerous and against the law, and it must be stopped."

The consumer group Food & Water Watch, which studied a pilot project of the new inspection model, has condemned the expansion of the program, saying the reduction of inspectors and acceleration of production lines would mean "more defective and unsanitary poultry contaminated with feathers, bile and feces."

Food & Water Watch filed its own lawsuit last month. Like the union lawsuit, it seeks to halt the change in USDA inspection practices.

The new model would be closer to what is used in the nation's product safety system, in which companies are required to self-report product defects. Already, though, the USDA recall system badly lags the hardly perfect product safety system by having no meaningful standards for what is mentioned in recalls -- in some cases omitting any details that would allow a consumer to be able to identify whether they had eaten a product that was pulled over safety concerns.

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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.