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Poultry inspection rules in focus on Capitol Hill

USDA Agricultural Commodity Compliance Specialist Melissa Thompson and Federal-State Supervisor Gary Tharp inspect a package of poultry at a Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in Springdale, Ark., in 2010.

A bipartisan group of senators is pressuring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finalize changes to the way poultry is inspected.

The new system is controversial. Advocates say it would save taxpayer money by shifting certain inspection duties from federal employees to company workers and allowing for faster processing. Some inspectors and consumer groups, though, oppose the changes and say it could compromise food safety.

The group of 13 senators sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this month asking when his department will take action on the new poultry inspection rule and it comes on the heels of a similarletter from four House leaders. The changes in poultry inspection rules are largely supported by the poultry industry.

The HIMP rule, as the new inspection protocols are called, was first introduced in January 2012 and it underwent two public comment periods that year. But it made no public progress at all in 2013. Purdue University food safety professor Manpreet Singh says the process shouldn’t be rushed.

“If this proposed rule come into effect, it is a significant change,” Singh said. “So the government wants to make sure they’re giving enough opportunity for all stakeholders, or all interested parties, to be able to provide comments.”

The slow progress of the HIMP rules is probably a sign of things to come. Singh says it’s entirely possible there will be another period of public comment after announced revisions. After all, there is a lot at stake.

“With our inspection systems, with the type of regulations we have currently, we are considered to be the safest food supply in the world,” Singh said.

That’s a designation both opponents and proponents of the new rules are fighting to protect.

More: Modernizing poultry inspection is no easy matter

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames