The coalition members say they are concerned the proposal could have serious repercussion on food safety. They have also asked USDA to withdraw equivalency determinations of foreign inspection programs and re-evaluate the inspection programs in those countries.
The coalition consists of eight consumer organizations, including the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, the Consumer Federation of America, and Food & Water Watch.
On the heels of a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that found USDA had not thoroughly evaluated its pilot programs of the modified inspection plan, the consumer coalition expressed their concerns in an open letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. The new inspection program is known as HACCP-based Inspection Model Project, or HIMP.
That report raised questions about whether HIMP would ensure improved, or even equivalent, levels of food safety and quality than currently exist. USDA has also come under criticism for selecting data from the pilot study over tw0, two-year periods instead of basing its proposal on data from the pilot program’s entire 10 years.
“These criticisms cut to the heart of the data and analysis on which FSIS relied in developing its proposal,” the open letter reads. “While the poultry slaughter inspection program does need to be improved, the GAO report raises serious questions about whether the data actually supports the improvements that FSIS claims in its proposed rule.”
Implementation of HIMP would prevent an estimated 5,000 Salmonella and Campylobacter infections each year, stated a spokeswoman for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service in an email to Food Safety News. An estimated 1 million Americans are infected with Salmonella each year and another 850,000 with Campylobacter, according to 2011 estimates by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The Food Safety and Inspection Service’s proposal to modernize the way we inspect poultry is about making food safer,” the spokeswoman said.
Approximately 10 years ago, a panel of third-party poultry experts reviewed the inspection models and found them valid, according to Alfred Almanza, FSIS administrator, in an editorial published by Food Safety News earlier this month.
The GAO report identified similar problems with a USDA pilot hog-inspection program, including a lack of comparable data and an inability to generalize the data to hog plants nationwide.
USDA’s Office of the Inspector General released a report stating that, because USDA could not determine whether the hog pilot program’s goals were met, it could not adequately oversee the pilot programs. In turn, that cast further doubt on its ability to validate the effectiveness of HIMP.
The coalition also cited recent food-safety problems with meat plants operated by foreign importers with inspection programs deemed equivalent to the USDA’s. In September 2012, for example, a Canadian beef company recalled millions of pounds of beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, 2.5 million pounds of which entered the U.S.
“FSIS lacks substantial information on which to determine whether the pilot program improves food safety,” the coalition wrote. “Considering the problems with similar approaches in foreign countries, we question whether these inspection models are sufficiently protecting public health.”© Food Safety News