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Setting the Record Straight on the Proposed Chicken Inspection Policy

Below is the text of a blog entry, “Setting the Record Straight on the Proposed Chicken Inspection Rule” by USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service Administrator Alfred Almanza. It was published April 13, 2012 by HuffingtonPost.com.

You may not know it, but every day, 10,000 dedicated USDA employees worry about the safety of the meat, poultry, and egg products you and your family eat. 

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Over the last few weeks, there has been a lot of misinformation in the media about a proposal by USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to modernize inspection at poultry slaughter plants. In fact, our plan will help prevent foodborne illnesses. 

Myths about our proposal are being touted by people who are not experts on the subject. Many of them have never even been inside a poultry plant, let alone a plant that is part of a 13-year-old study we have used to determine how best to modernize inspection. Others have suggested that those proposing this new inspection approach know little or nothing about what inspectors really do. As someone who started as an entry level FSIS inspector almost 34 years ago, and has been here for the tremendous amount of change in this agency ever since then, I want to provide a “front-row seat” perspective on how FSIS has transformed into an agency that puts public health first and focuses on prevention. 

When I first started as an FSIS inspector in 1978, we were instructed to make sure that every plant followed prescriptive regulations. I was trained under and well-versed in the “command and control” philosophy focused on enforcing regulations for the sake of enforcement. The world around us was advancing technologically and scientifically. Bacterial pathogens — hidden to the naked eye — were identified as the biggest threat in meat and poultry. We weren’t keeping pace with the industry’s innovations. That changed in 1996 with a sweeping regulation that called for a shift toward contamination prevention, and required industry to implement comprehensive systems to address foodborne threats. The implementation of the 1996 Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system rule, along with other actions taken by FSIS, have resulted in a significant reduction in foodborne illness. But the latest data tells us we still have much more work to do to protect Americans from foodborne illness.

In January of this year, FSIS published a proposal that would further the agency’s transformation to focus solely on public health and help address the challenge we have to reduce foodborne illness. The poultry modernization proposal will help prevent an estimated 5,200 illnesses. How? By focusing our most valuable resource, our front-line inspectors, on what matters. Right now, we focus on visual inspections of birds, carcass by carcass, and we look for bumps and blemishes. Do these blemishes put Americans’ health at risk? No. But the unseen threats, Salmonella and Campylobacter, do. Today, we inspect poultry much the same way as we have since the Eisenhower administration, evaluating the quality of each carcass and doing industry’s quality assurance work for them. Once upon a time, there was a good explanation for this: when FSIS first started inspecting poultry, quality assurance was thought to be the best way of keeping the public safe and holding industry accountable. But now that our scientific knowledge has advanced and helped us better identify true food safety threats, we cannot do the same thing we’ve been doing since the 1950s. 

If we’re going to have a debate on the merits of this proposal, I welcome it. But we need to use the same facts in this important discussion. It is not an honest debate when some people are saying that line speeds are going from 35 birds per minute (bpm) to 175. That is simply not the case. Right now, under our current regulations, line speeds are capped at 140 bpm. Additionally, the 20 broiler plants under a pilot program started in 1999, known as the HACCP Inspection Models Program (HIMP), are allowed to go up to 175 bpm. In other words, we have more than a decade of experience slaughter running at 175 bpm, the proposed maximum line speed in the rule. And the data is clear that in these plants, the poultry produced has lower rates of Salmonella, a pathogen that sickens more than 1 million people in the U.S. every year. These plants also maintain superior performance on removing the visual and quality defects that don’t make people sick. Those are the facts, based on the data. 

Some in the debate have said that we are turning over inspection to the industry to determine what is safe for consumers. Nothing could be more misleading or incorrect. USDA inspectors will be in every plant, ensuring the safety of these products, and the proportion of them doing critical food safety related tasks will actually increase. 

In the 34 years of my career focused on food safety, I have seen — again and again — the need to modernize to keep up with the latest science and threats. This poultry slaughter modernization proposal is about protecting public health, plain and simple.

© Food Safety News
  • Richard Bishop

    I understand by Regulations FSIS must do a bird by bird inspection, 9 CFR 381.76 (a).
    But within that same section it dictates nothing can be removed until after the FSIS Inspector has assured the wholesomeness of the bird, and marked, 381.97 in accordance with the Act. Is the mark of Inspection going to be changed to delete the “For Wholesomeness? It has not been a topic for years. I realize you may not know what it is to set the poultry line, but why not respect the inspectors the agency has placed at the end of the line and also do away with that position. They have nothing to use for indicators of the real health of the bird and at that speed they will be lucky to see anything anyway. After the bird has been inspected, it is the plant which should be doing the house checking. Turly FSIS is turning the Inspection over to the plant in the setting they have set up. The data is not about pathology/disease. Has 9 CFR 318.81 – .87 became a thing of the past? If so why not tell the public that there are going to be some things get through which transfer to a few people but it is worth the risk. When I first started hearing how HIMP was set up and the changes to lighten the responsibility of Pathology so the plants could not fail, I played it off as un welcome change. I no longer believe that. I remember many years ago when the Southwest Region had two DVM’s with many years of in plant and Area and then Regional work experience. One went to Washington as they were told to choose who was going as they wanted to tell the public that had all that experience there with them. They told the DVM to go to his office at the end of the hall as they were going to change things and right or wrong had nothing to do with it. The one which went was able to complete his year and retire. He told me his self how things took place and I have no reason to this day, to think that was not the way it happened. I only have 36 years in and choose to stay in the plants. Well looking at the retirement check, might have should have re thought that, Ha. I remember the old Inspector not liking AQL, RTE, etc. It was change. I keep telling myself, it is just change. Well not done telling me that. But I will always remember, one DVM went all the way to Washington to find out it was going to change regardless of the lessons learnt. I heard another DVM done the research which showed pathology was still a concern when it came to public health. He was told it didn’t matter we are going to do it anyway. I am afraid the only thing I have enjoyed out of the deal is AFGE has been shown again they are just a noise.
    I hope nether one of us find out that the MD’s worrying about Pathogens only, effected someone we know and love.
    Oh there is a (ps), I sure miss Delmer Jones. I bet AFGE does too.
    Thanks for the chance to Comment.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley

    What this rather condescending (and not particularly effective) blog post neglects to mention is that the people most concerned about these new rules are poultry plant food inspectors.
    http://foodwhistleblower.org/blog/23-2012/346-usda-inspectors-government-himp-plan-is-a-threat-to-food-safety

  • Felicia Nestor

    HIMP inspectors provide a better “front-row seat” at http://foodwhistleblower.org/blog/23-2012/346-usda-inspectors-government-himp-plan-is-a-threat-to-food-safety.
    And it’s not just the inspector statements that illustrate the danger here. While Mr. Almanza is paid to sell the public on this bill of goods so that the agency can meet its budget, readers should look past the glowing rhetoric because problems with the proposal are evident throughout USDA’s documents at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Regulations_&_Policies/Proposed_Rules/index.asp
    They include:
    1) Salmonella rates were actually higher in HIMP plants than in traditional plants, in 2009 and 2010, which is the most recent data provided (USDA’s “Evaluation” document, p. 26);
    2) Potential illness decreases are based on weak data; campylobacter may actually increase . (Risk Assessment, pg. 9).
    3) Potential illness decreases are also based on a premise of HIMP not changing . . . just adding additional tasks. (Risk Assessment, pg. 24-32) But the new system differs considerably from HIMP. The new system will be without HIMP’s scheduled verification tasks or wholesomeness standards. And plants will now decide what microbes to test for, and where, when, and how to test for them; plants will decide what level of defects demonstrate compliance; plants can determine where in the plant some products will be inspected;
    4) USDA’s data show that linespeeds are so fast in HIMP plants that inspectors spot only about one of every 200 diseased carcasses going down the line and only about one of every 89 carcasses with fecal contamination. (Evaluation, pg. 15). The rest get the USDA seal of approval and go out to consumers.
    USDA should hold a public meeting to discuss these issues and extend the comment period beyond April 26th, as so many consumer organizations have requested. Then Mr. Almanza will not have to worry about public misperceptions. USDA should also stop misinforming the public and Congress that the Risk Assessment underlying its proposal has been peer reviewed, when that is clearly not the case.