Is USDA playing chicken with chickens?

Editor’s note: The following editorial appeared Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times:

Under a proposed change in federal food safety rules, up to 175 chicken carcasses a minute would whiz by a single government inspector as he attempted to check them for signs of contamination or other problems. Talk about poultry in motion.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been testing a system, with promising results, under which it could cut the number of government poultry inspectors by 800 and have the employees of processing plants take over much of the inspection and sorting work earlier on in the line. A USDA inspector would then view only the carcasses that had passed earlier screening, but at a much faster pace. Right now, government inspectors examine no more than 35 chickens per minute. Under the new scenario, the processing line would move up to 25 percent faster.

New processes, however, have a way of looking better during pilot programs, when everyone is being watched carefully and has an incentive to do things right, than they do in the ordinary day-to-day grind of business. Considering the number of food safety problems that have occurred in recent years, this privatizing of much of the inspection process strikes us as a recipe for trouble.

Unlike bona fide government inspectors, plant employees will be all too aware that whenever they pull a product off the line, they’re costing money to the company that employs them. So even if the owners and managers are scrupulous about not pressuring employees, there’s a built-in incentive to let marginal problems pass through. And the last several years have offered many examples of food industry operators who were less than scrupulous, with damaging and sometimes deadly results for consumers. In a particularly bad case last year, more than 36 million pounds of ground turkey were recalled because of salmonella contamination that sickened 111 people nationwide and killed one in California.

Meanwhile, there’s virtually no point to the USDA inspector under this program except to make sure that the plant’s employees aren’t allowing the most visible and obvious problems to pass. More subtle signs of trouble are likely to go unnoticed, given that each inspector will have about a third of a second to examine each chicken carcass.

In an election year marked by conservative attacks on big government and supposed over-regulation, the Obama administration has pushed for many agencies to streamline operations. There might be many situations in which this is entirely appropriate, but not when it comes to ensuring something as basic as the safety and wholesomeness of what Americans eat.