WASHINGTON – Forty-two million chickens are inspected each week in the processing plants of the Salisbury-based Perdue Farms – at taxpayer expense.
But under a Clinton administration plan, Perdue and other meat, poultry and egg production plants would be asked to pay for part of the inspections, supported by taxpayers since 1907.
The proposed “user fees,” which would shift 70 percent of the cost to the producers, have ruffled the feathers of industry spokesmen.
“We see no reason to change the current system,” said Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Broiler Council, which represents poultry producers. “Any charge levied by the government on companies would just be passed on to consumers.”
Thomas J. Billy, who administers the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, told a Senate subcommittee last week that the impact on prices for consumers would be less than one-half cent per pound of meat or poultry.
If the legislation requested by the USDA is passed by Congress, the shift would save the government an estimated $390 million in fiscal year 1998.
Billy said the user fees are “essential” to the long-term effectiveness of the food safety program.
“This proposal is intended to assure that resources are available now and in the future to provide the level of inspection necessary,” Billy said.
He argued that because producers as well as consumers benefit from the inspection process, producers should pick up part of the tab.
“The food industry profits in the marketplace from the level of consumer confidence provided by the federal inspection programs,” he said. “To accomplish a balanced federal budget, cost burdens must be shifted from taxpayers to those that benefit directly from the provided services.”
But Lobb argued that because the inspections are mandatory, “It is appropriate that the U.S. government should pay for it.”
Dave Miller, a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the fees would hurt farmers, because meat packers might offer lower prices for livestock and produce.
Food safety is a public service, Miller said, and “should be part of appropriated funds.”
Dorothea Vafiadis, spokeswoman for the National Pork Producers, warned the user fees could potentially lead to “deteriorating consumer confidence” in food safety.
If companies were to pay the government to perform inspections, Vafiadis said, it could create an appearance of impropriety.
The user fees would not impact new inspection procedures, which officials began phasing in in January, USDA officials said.
Over the next three years, the department will switch from its “touch and smell” method of inspection to a more rigorous and scientific approach, where laboratory tests are performed for salmonella and e coli contamination. The new inspection procedures will cost about $350 million to implement, but will not cost significantly more to operate than current methods, a USDA economic impact analysis concluded. -30-