Protesting government meat inspectors, including some dressed in chicken suits, picketed Department of Agriculture headquarters in Washington in early April to focus attention on a shift in USDA poultry inspection regulations. Under a new Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) rule, many inspections of chicken carcasses will be transferred from FSIS inspectors to employees of the processing plants.

The agency says the rule will give inspectors more time to focus on pathogen prevention. FSIS inspectors will continue to conduct inspections during the last stages of production. FSIS says the rule will save money for taxpayers and be more efficient. Protesting inspectors, and some consumer groups supporting them, argue the agency is just trying to cut corners.

“Cutting the budget does not justify putting the health and safety of consumers and workers in the balance,” says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the consumer group Food & Water Watch. “USDA inspectors receive extensive training to protect public health in poultry facilities, but there is no similar requirement for company employees to receive training before they assume these inspection responsibilities in the proposed privatized inspection system. This short-sighted thinking could actually cost the federal government more to deal with a potential increase in foodborne illnesses caused by unsanitary, defective poultry and meat.”

But FSIS says pathogens are now a much greater risk than diseased or injured animals entering the food supply and the agency is simply updating its procedures to account for that.