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Letter From The Editor: Poultry Politics

Opinion

In writing about food safety for the past four years, I’ve come to appreciate those times when government, industry and consumers are all on the same page. It’s at those moments that a bipartisan Congress adopts reforms like the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Then there are times when government, industry and consumers are not on the same page. Hells bells – they are not even in the same chapter of the same book. That’s where we stand today when it comes to changing poultry inspection in the United States.

And this has been going on for way too long. There are fewer and fewer meat inspectors working in the nation’s beef plants who can even remember the old “poke and sniff” days before the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak of deadly E. coli O157:H7. In beef plants for most of the past two decades, job #1 has been pathogen reduction and control.

But there was no mention of pathogen reduction and control in the 1957 Poultry Inspection Act, and it pretty much defines the world of poultry inspections today. Nothing has changed in 56 years.

Oh, except of course poultry contamination has run amuck with nasty bacteria like Campylobacter and Salmonella. You have to be damn careful of cross-contamination and cook the sh*t out of it.

To think that there might be a day when poultry processing brings something, maybe a drug resistant Salmonella, under control seems like so much of a pipe dream. Making pathogen control and reduction the primary job of USDA poultry inspection seems no closer now than when it was first proposed in 1998.

As long as the 1957 model continues, the several hundred USDA poultry inspectors will go to work every day, stand mostly on platforms and watch upwards of 9 billion bird carcasses fly by. Almost all will be totally uniform in size, shape and age.

I’m not sure what hundreds of eyes seeing the same thing over and over billions of time can really spot, but I damn well know they do not see any pathogens. There must be a better way!

Oh yea, there is, but we are just not using it because pathogen control is taking a back seat to union politics. After Jack-in-the-Box, USDA got serious about pathogens and started to make changes. In 1996 came the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) rules.

Two years later, with HACCP in place, USDA announced it would conduct a pilot program in 20 plants that would deploy inspectors differently. Inspectors would be used on and off the line. The off-line inspectors would be charged with verifications and system inspection duties, essentially taking responsibility for seeing that the plant’s HACCP was being implemented.

But all hell broke loose. The American Federation of Government Employees sued, and through the federal courts and negotiations with USDA got an agreement to prevent expansion of the pilot program (known as HIMP).

So there is has remained. A small group of plants operating outside the 1957 inspection model, generating data. The federal court said generating data was okay, as long as USDA did not go overboard and start using what they’ve learned to actually start controlling pathogens in poultry.

Well, to her great credit, USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen has turned what’s been learned from HIMP into a new rule for the poultry industry. Just as she did in making the six non-O157 E. coli strains adulterants, Hagen is showing courage while doing what’s best for food safety.

She says “refocused inspections” in poultry plants piloting HIMP have shown that both Salmonella and Campylobacter can be reduced. Her predecessor, Dr. Richard Raymond, says HIMP demonstrated drops in fecal material and septic birds.

Let’s see, we’ve learned a few thing about food safety since 1957. We know what works and we know how to apply those techniques. If we do so, there will be fewer illnesses and deaths. It’s pretty simple.

USDA should adopt this new rule, and get on to seeing what works and does not work on a larger scale. Clearly, the 1957 model is broken. It should have been abandoned a long, long time ago.

© Food Safety News
  • http://twitter.com/MichaelBulger Michael Bulger

    Any discussion on this topic should include one of the things industry is really after: increased line speeds. Getting USDA inspectors off the line allows the poultry plants to pick up their pace. This is appealing to them because it means they can increase their profits. No longer do they have to keep speeds low enough that an inspector can look over 1 or two birds per second, checking for fecal contamination or injuries where pathogens could enter the birds. Instead they can process twice as many birds while paying their workers for the same amount of hours.

    Of course, increased line speeds are a safety concern. Processing birds faster increases the chance of worker error that can result in contamination. Working in a poultry processing plant is a hazardous occupation. Workers make little money, are often migrant workers without health insurance and with little to no opportunity to complain or take a sick day, and the job is marked by many injuries. In addition to repetitive motion injuries, the rushed nature of the hacking and slicing often leads to cuts, stabs, and even amputations.

    I suspect the USDA/industry would find consumer groups far more amenable towards HIMP if they agreed to limit line speed. But can you imagine the industry’s outcry at the suggestion that anyone get in between them and more money?

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Oh, heck no we’re not going to allow you to make this all a problem because of union thugs. Run some other libertarian flag up the pole.

    Last I heard, HIMP raised objections from, more or less, an entire swathof consumers and food safety folk. The idea of speeding up poultry lines in order to increase food safety just didn’t make a lot of sense … to anyone.

    Replacing government inspectors with people who are employed by the plant (and therefore beholden for their income to the plant) made even less sense.

    Let me refresh the mind that forgets:

    http://www.foodwhistleblower.org/the-lifecycle-of-food/the-problems-of-processing/insufficient-government-oversight/himp

    http://www.whistleblower.org/press/press-release-archive/2012/1889-usda-inspectors-government-himp-plan-is-a-threat-to-food-safety

    I’m not of the “don’t trust anything the government says” school, but I’ve had enough experience with the USDA to know that a healthy level of skepticism is necessary when it comes to powerful food corporation interests being impacted by any new rule or regulation.

    Frankly, poultry companies have not demonstrated enough level of commitment to anything but their bottom line in order to turn over increased responsibility for food safety. The HIMP data is based on model plants being carefully scrutinized. You remove that scrutiny, and any supposed benefits are lost.