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USDA to Revamp Poultry Inspection

Federal regulators plan to trim the fat on poultry inspection costs in the U.S. by concentrating on measures proven to boost food safety and cutting out excessive steps, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday.

In a proposed rule, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) said it will be shifting its focus at chicken and turkey slaughter plants from supervising processing lines to evaluating a company’s food safety procedures.

Under current policy, FSIS is responsible for examining all poultry carcasses for blemishes or visible damage before they are further processed. 

Now the agency plans to turn this quality assurance task over to the poultry plant so that it can devote more of its employees to evaluating the company’s pathogen-prevention plans and bacteria-testing programs. 

To be clear, this restructuring does not mean carcasses will go unexamined by government inspectors.

“There will still be an inspector on the line looking at these birds, but that inspector will be looking at a bird that comes across with fewer defects because the sorting will happen at the beginning,” explained Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Elizabeth Hagen in a news teleconference Friday.

This in turn will free up inspectors to evaluate the plant’s sanitation procedures and test product for bacteria.

“We’ll spend our time and our resources on the critical food safety tasks. We believe this will result in a more efficient and more effective process and certainly a more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during the call with reporters Friday. 

The move will create a win-win-win situation, according to the government. It will cut costs for the agency by anywhere from $85- to $95 million over the next three years, boost the economy by $250 million, and provide cheaper, safer products to consumers, according to a peer-reviewed risk assessment

The proposed policy change will be voluntary – each plant can decide whether or not it wants to adopt the new system. However, FSIS says it expects around 200 of the country’s 300 processing plants to opt for the switch, because the new procedure is expected to boost profits by speeding up production lines. 

The rule is not mandatory because while it will make production safer and more efficient at larger plants, it could prove challenging or even impossible for small or very small plants to implement. 

The government says it has hard evidence that this new strategy will work. The shift from on-line to off-line evaluation has already been made at a handful of plants around the country. Results from these pilot programs, which have been in place for more than 12 years, have shown that this approach significantly reduces pathogen contamination. 

Based on previous experiences, FSIS predicts that with the new rule in place, Salmonella infections would fall by 4,286, from an estimated 174,686 Salmonella illnesses each year to around 170,000. And Campylobacter infections, which currently affect around 169,005 people per year, are expected to decline by almost 1,000.  

While the change in inspection practices will be optional, the rule also contains a handful of non-negotiable policies. 

All facilities will be required to have:

- Written procedures to ensure that carcasses contaminated with visible fecal matter do not enter the chiller, and 

- Written procedures to prevent contamination of carcasses and parts by enteric pathogens (e.g. Salmonella and Campylobacter) and fecal material throughout the entire slaughter and

dressing operation. At a minimum, plants must test for microbial organisms at the pre- and post-chill points.

The draft rule was met with praise from industry.

“As new research expands our ability to respond to food safety issues, it is essential that we embrace new inspection approaches that keep pace with that knowledge,” said American Meat Institute executive vice president James H. Hodges in a statement Friday. “While our knowledge has grown exponentially in the last two decades, there have been no major changes to our federal poultry inspection system during this period.  We commend USDA for embracing science and we look forward to working with them as they finalize the rule and implement this new approach.”

However, some consumer groups blasted the new protocol, saying that the Department of Agriculture is giving up control of poultry and leaving the industry to set its own food safety standards.

“Food & Water Watch vehemently opposes this plan and any other attempts to privatize food safety functions that are the responsibility of the federal government,” said the consumer watchdog group in a statement Friday. 

FSIS, however, says it is not surrendering any of its regulatory duties to industry, but rather strengthening its role in food safety. 

“This proposal would not privatize poultry inspection,” said Dirk Fillpot of FSIS in an e-mailed statement to Food Safety News. “The modernization effort being announced today would shift FSIS personnel away from performing sorting activities, which primarily serves a marketing function for producers, and focuses their efforts on conducting carcass-by-carcass and other inspection activities that will better ensure the safety of poultry available for consumers.”

Others questioned the validity of using an FSIS study of the pilot programs now in place as evidence that this new system will truly reduce the presence of bacteria on birds.

“There has been no thorough independent review of HIMP (HACCP Inspection Models Project) since 2001 when the GAO reviewed the program and raised serious concerns about the data presented by FSIS to justify the program…” said Chris Waldorp, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute. “FSIS’ announcement today pre-empts any independent review.” 

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the proof will be in the pudding.

“USDA should modify its inspection program carefully to ensure that the program reduces the unacceptably high levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter in chicken and turkey,” he said in a statement Friday. “One can’t escape the fact that the government is shrinking, and that historic programs like this one need to demonstrate their value. The proof will be in reduced contamination rates, leading to fewer deaths and illnesses.”

U.S. Rep. Rosa Delauro (D-CT) praised the move, but pointed out that attention must be payed to worker safety, since assembly-line paces are likely to increase.

“I strongly support modernizing our food safety system and making it more efficient — but we must not do this at the expense of worker safety and public health,” said the congresswoman Friday. “It is imperative that decisions regarding our food safety system are made with the public health as our highest priority. I look forward to working with the USDA and learning more about this proposed rule and ensuring that it does not compromise worker safety and the integrity of our food safety system.”

FSIS does not predi
ct that the new policy will put workers in any danger.

“We are as concerned as anyone about worker safety,” said Vilsack. ”We want to make sure that those folks who are working on the line are working in a safe environment. We believe from experience in pilot plants that worker safety will not be compromised as a result of this new rule. 

“That being said, we are conducting a study with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health into the effects of faster line speeds on employees.”

The proposed rule will be posted soon in the Federal Register, and will be available for public comment for 90 days after it is published. 

© Food Safety News
  • BB

    Rep. DeLauro is worried about worker safety because of increased line speeds??? The inspectors won’t even have to touch the birds now. If anything, this will be safer because they won’t have to repetitively touch the birds. The hardest thing now will be staying awake! Of course the industry (Tyson, Pilgrims)) is praising this new system. They’re getting what they wanted all along and can run faster. Production is all they care about anyways.
    I don’t have a problem with it. I think it will be more efficient. A lot of the regs are/were obsolete. I just feel bad for the inspectors that will have to relocate.

  • http://www.johnmunsell.com jmunsell

    These changes “may” be beneficial to food safety, a claim which will only be proven by future microbial analyses. FSIS should provide us a detailed explanation of exactly what responsibilities their inspectors will now have, that is, to precisely delineate what duties these off-line inspectors will have. Why do I say this?
    If the off-line inspectors focus primarily on reviewing company-generated paperwork, much of which has no connection to food safety, this is a feint. Such subterfuge currently occurs at meat plants, a horrendous waste of taxpayer dollars. FSIS needs to clearly define the company records which will now receive increased scrutiny. Furthermore, will agency microbial sampling of chicken carcasses and ground chicken increase in frequency? This needs to be clearly identified.
    A common complaint against the agency’s version of HACCP is that the agency firmly believes that if an establishment fills tneir files to overflowing with a plethora of daily paperwork, that the abundance of paperwork will automatically produce safer food. Let me give you but one example.
    FSIS requires that downstream, further processing plants obtain from their source slaughter providers annual “Letters of Certification” and “Guarantees”. Letters of certification describe the variety of protocol existing in the suppliers’ HACCP Plan, SSOP’s, GMP’s, 3rd party validations, intervention steps, CCP’s, sampling criteria (N-60, Test & Hold, diversion of Presumptive Positive product, definition of lots), etc etc etc. These certifications also include statements that no meat plant is able to guarantee pathogen-free raw materials. These certifications are typically available on the source plants’ websites, available to the public. Interestingly, if a supplier’s HACCP and related systems are deficient, FSIS should have already detected that & demanded changes. Small, downstream plants which detect potential deficiencies in their suppliers’ plans have absolutely no authority to demand changes at the source plants, and keep their mouths shut rather than risk being delisted as a future customer.
    Letters of guarantee merely state that the slaughter plants’ products are not adulterated within the meaning of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Please note that the guarantees do NOT mention shipment of meat which is adulterated as per FSIS requirements, which means zero tolerance. Huge distinction.
    Therefore, letters of certification and guarantees are NOT guarantees of product wholesomeness or safety. But, FSIS requires that all downstream plants have updated certifications and guarantees, inferring that the presence of such paperwork essentially prevents the further processing plant from ever purchasing unsafe meat, and the absence of such paperwork in files greatly increases the chances of the downstream plant purchasing previously-contaminated meat.
    This is but one more example of the underlying beguiling foundational premises of FSIS-style HACCP, which is that paperwork (& agency review of it) will automatically produce safer meat & poultry. Now, if the inspectors’ increased off-line work consists of reviewing meaningful data, such as results of company-conducted microbial sampling, and increased agency microbial sampling, then yes indeed, this new agency proposal could improve food safety.
    We must realize that if FSIS continues to place more emphasis on a paper chase (as is currently the case), rather than a pathogen chase, this new agency proposal is but smoke & mirrors.
    FSIS tenaciously argues that if meat plants would only place more paragraphs into their HACCP Plans, create more daily forms (typically divorced from food safety), and have more bells and whistles in their SSOP’s, GMP’s, etc, that safer food will automatically result, because more paperwork is being generated.
    Let’s see precisely what FSIS envisions its inspectors to do under this new system which primarily focuses on inspectors working off-line.
    John Munsell

  • http://www.johnmunsell.com John Munsell

    These changes “may” be beneficial to food safety, a claim which will only be proven by future microbial analyses. FSIS should provide us a detailed explanation of exactly what responsibilities their inspectors will now have, that is, to precisely delineate what duties these off-line inspectors will have. Why do I say this?
    If the off-line inspectors focus primarily on reviewing company-generated paperwork, much of which has no connection to food safety, this is a feint. Such subterfuge currently occurs at meat plants, a horrendous waste of taxpayer dollars. FSIS needs to clearly define the company records which will now receive increased scrutiny. Furthermore, will agency microbial sampling of chicken carcasses and ground chicken increase in frequency? This needs to be clearly identified.
    A common complaint against the agency’s version of HACCP is that the agency firmly believes that if an establishment fills tneir files to overflowing with a plethora of daily paperwork, that the abundance of paperwork will automatically produce safer food. Let me give you but one example.
    FSIS requires that downstream, further processing plants obtain from their source slaughter providers annual “Letters of Certification” and “Guarantees”. Letters of certification describe the variety of protocol existing in the suppliers’ HACCP Plan, SSOP’s, GMP’s, 3rd party validations, intervention steps, CCP’s, sampling criteria (N-60, Test & Hold, diversion of Presumptive Positive product, definition of lots), etc etc etc. These certifications also include statements that no meat plant is able to guarantee pathogen-free raw materials. These certifications are typically available on the source plants’ websites, available to the public. Interestingly, if a supplier’s HACCP and related systems are deficient, FSIS should have already detected that & demanded changes. Small, downstream plants which detect potential deficiencies in their suppliers’ plans have absolutely no authority to demand changes at the source plants, and keep their mouths shut rather than risk being delisted as a future customer.
    Letters of guarantee merely state that the slaughter plants’ products are not adulterated within the meaning of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Please note that the guarantees do NOT mention shipment of meat which is adulterated as per FSIS requirements, which means zero tolerance. Huge distinction.
    Therefore, letters of certification and guarantees are NOT guarantees of product wholesomeness or safety. But, FSIS requires that all downstream plants have updated certifications and guarantees, inferring that the presence of such paperwork essentially prevents the further processing plant from ever purchasing unsafe meat, and the absence of such paperwork in files greatly increases the chances of the downstream plant purchasing previously-contaminated meat.
    This is but one more example of the underlying beguiling foundational premises of FSIS-style HACCP, which is that paperwork (& agency review of it) will automatically produce safer meat & poultry. Now, if the inspectors’ increased off-line work consists of reviewing meaningful data, such as results of company-conducted microbial sampling, and increased agency microbial sampling, then yes indeed, this new agency proposal could improve food safety.
    We must realize that if FSIS continues to place more emphasis on a paper chase (as is currently the case), rather than a pathogen chase, this new agency proposal is but smoke & mirrors.
    FSIS tenaciously argues that if meat plants would only place more paragraphs into their HACCP Plans, create more daily forms (typically divorced from food safety), and have more bells and whistles in their SSOP’s, GMP’s, etc, that safer food will automatically result, because more paperwork is being generated.
    Let’s see precisely what FSIS envisions its inspectors to do under this new system which primarily focuses on inspectors working off-line.
    John Munsell

  • Mike Smith

    “Under current policy, FSIS is now reponsible for examining all poultry carcasses for blemishes or visual damage before the birds are futher processed?”
    I work in a poulty processing facility and I know that FSIS examines each bird, hands-on, for mutilation, contamination, and pathology.
    One major disease is IP (imflammatory process)-a little understood disease that usually occurs under the skin but often becomes systemic. It is very hard to detect without hands-on inspection. It usually manifests itself as a yellow exudate under the skin and in the soft tissues of the bird. It contains a mixture of harmful bacteria, often Strep,Staph, E. Coli and others.
    Another major disease is airsacculitis. It is a respiratory disease that often becomes systemic. It manifest itself as a snot-looking viscous exudate that often covers the viscera and inside of the bird. It is almost impossible to detect without an examination of the viscera and a hands-on examination of the inside body cavity of the carcass.
    The current inspection system requires FSIS inspectors to examine each viscera and each bird. The inspectors examine 35 birds per minute. If the contamination/mutilation/pathology is to such a degree that the birds cannot be examined and disposed of properly, the IIC (Inspector in Charge) has the authority to slow the line down to allow proper examination and disposition of the defective birds.
    With the new inspection system, an inspector merely looks at the birds as they pass by at 180 birds/minute. There is no hands-on examination for mutilation, contamination, and pathology.

  • http://www.johnmunsell.com jmunsell

    Aw come on Mike, you are a throw back to the old organoleptic inspection which depended on the senses (sight, touch, smell) which FSIS has dismissed as an archaic, “poke & sniff” system. USDA’s new “science based” meat inspection system is science based, not longer requiring organoleptic inspection for mutilation, contamination and pathology. In the mid-90′s, USDA promised our industry that its role under HACCP would be “Hands Off”, and that the agency would no longer police the industry, but we could police themselves. Being “Hands Off” means just that: keep their blasted hands off our poultry carcasses! And FSIS doesn’t want to police us anymore, which means we should be able to do all this “Hands On” organoleptic stuff ourselves.
    At 180 birds per minute, the inspector could merely look at 3 birds per second to comply with the requirement they inspect every bird. As the agency says, “Let HACCP Work!”
    Lastly, who cares if pathogen-laced poultry get into commerce? After all, the entity primarily responsible for food safety is the consumer, whose future sickness will be fully caused by his/her improper cooking protocol. Yup, let HACCP work!
    John Munsell

  • http://www.johnmunsell.com John Munsell

    Aw come on Mike, you are a throw back to the old organoleptic inspection which depended on the senses (sight, touch, smell) which FSIS has dismissed as an archaic, “poke & sniff” system. USDA’s new “science based” meat inspection system is science based, not longer requiring organoleptic inspection for mutilation, contamination and pathology. In the mid-90′s, USDA promised our industry that its role under HACCP would be “Hands Off”, and that the agency would no longer police the industry, but we could police themselves. Being “Hands Off” means just that: keep their blasted hands off our poultry carcasses! And FSIS doesn’t want to police us anymore, which means we should be able to do all this “Hands On” organoleptic stuff ourselves.
    At 180 birds per minute, the inspector could merely look at 3 birds per second to comply with the requirement they inspect every bird. As the agency says, “Let HACCP Work!”
    Lastly, who cares if pathogen-laced poultry get into commerce? After all, the entity primarily responsible for food safety is the consumer, whose future sickness will be fully caused by his/her improper cooking protocol. Yup, let HACCP work!
    John Munsell

  • Richard

    Well Mr. Munsell, the more I see out of you the more I like you. Hope you and your equals will stay after it.
    Truth Hurts Don’t It.
    Be carefull you don’t take their Bonuses for pleases the industry and forgeting the consumers.

  • http://enlargemedia.com/ marketing agency

    It really is interesting to see how far the USDA has come from its inception. I can’t even imagine what would happen if we didn’t have the regulatory agencies that we do now.