A report compiled by the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) suggests that as many as 40 percent of chickens heading to supermarket from plants participating in an experimental "model'' inspection program were contaminated with sores, scabs and other defects.

RTI's conclusions are based on its examination of 14,000 chickens from seven processing plants participating in a new "science based" inspection program undertaken by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The program allows federal meat inspectors to oversee broader food safety issues at chicken processing plants, and permits line workers to perform some tasks previously undertaken by inspectors. RTI was hired by FSIS to monitor the performance of participating plants.

39 percent found defective

Dated September 26, the resulting RTI report indicated that of the 14,000 chickens it examined, 1.1 percent were diseased; 39 percent were found defective with sores, scabs, bruises or other processing defects; 18.8 percent were contaminated with material from the chicken's digestive tract; and 98.6 percent had other defects involving feathers, hair or oil glands that weren't properly removed on the processing line. RTI's findings were recently released to Scripps Howard News Service under the Freedom of Information Act.

However, reports of problems with the FSIS program began emerging in the media last summer. In August, FSIS administrator Thomas Billy held a press conference to defend the program, claiming "it raises the bar for food safety and other consumer protection concerns.'' He indicated that FSIS was putting a federal meat inspector at the end of each line to better detect defective chicken after they were processed. (The RTI report was based on its inspections of chickens that had undergone that process.)

Billy also used the press conference to blast union groups for misrepresenting facts to the media. At the time, the federal meat inspectors union complained that the program had made substantial alterations to traditional inspection practices, and that lines were speeded up to the point that they couldn't perform their tasks properly. Although the union has since lost a court battle to stop the program, it is appealing.

In addition to chickens, the model inspection program is being used at several U.S. turkey and pig plants. At press time, FSIS had yet to comment on the RTI report.