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USDA’s Poultry-Inspection System Needs to Be Modernized

Opinion

In an effort to continue progress toward reducing foodborne illnesses, we believe the poultry inspection system should be modernized to transition to a model that is more science- and risk-based.

One of the unrivaled achievements in the American experience is the success of our nation’s farms in providing food and political stability. This success enables most citizens to spend time on other pursuits rather than acquiring food for their family. America’s meat and poultry supply has never been less expensive in real dollar terms, or safer. Nevertheless, much can still be done to improve food safety.

Much of the food-safety success began with federal regulatory initiatives to improve quality and wholesomeness of poultry back when few standards existed and relatively little was known about foodborne illness. At the time the U.S. Department of Agriculture began regulating poultry inspection to keep American consumers safe, a gallon of gas cost 30 cents and Elvis’ “All Shook Up” was on the radio. The year was 1957. Most poultry was produced locally and dressed either at home or by local butchers. A lot has changed since then – except the way USDA inspects meat and poultry.

Food-safety experts at USDA want to change that to keep up with the latest science and technology, and rightfully so.

More than a quarter-century ago, the National Academy of Sciences strongly encouraged USDA to focus on food safety and downplay things that did not affect health. Then, in 1989, the academy forcefully said that traditional poultry inspection was impeding food-safety progress.

A decade later, USDA began testing HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) in 20 chicken, five turkey and five pork plants. (HACCP is a scientific method of identifying and preventing food safety hazards and managing risk.) Data from the test plants have been studied, debated, and reviewed for more than a decade to assure the model is the best way to modernize meat and poultry inspection, improve food safety, and protect workers.

Under current traditional carcass inspection, federal inspectors focus on blemishes and bruises as well as wholesomeness. These are certainly important things, but they don’t reduce the contamination that causes foodborne illness.

HIMP shifted federal inspection to things that cause sickness in humans. It makes plant employees responsible for blemishes and bruises. In HIMP plants, company-conducted sorting is overseen by a federal veterinarian and their inspection team. USDA inspectors still inspect; one is stationed on-line ensuring only wholesome carcasses enter the food supply. Yes, the carcasses are checked twice, once by a plant employee and again by a federal inspector. All federal inspectors are authorized to take control if food-safety mistakes are made or if quality problems happen.

Modernizing the system will increase the number of USDA inspectors performing off-line food-safety tasks. Off-line inspectors verify contamination control, examine herd or flock records, evaluate food hazard prevention plans, ensure sanitation is maintained, and test for pathogens such as Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Focusing federal inspection on microbiological safety and leaving the visible but non-safety-related sorting to the industry leverages the federal presence while making food safer and reducing taxpayer cost.

Think of it this way: A car company will not be able to sell a new car with a dented door. A dent is a visually unappealing quality defect, but it is not going to cause an accident or endanger public health. But something you can’t see, like bad brakes, could get you or someone else killed. Do you want your taxpayer dollars spent looking for dents or things that actually impact your safety? We are glad that there are governmental programs evaluating safety, but simultaneously glad that all safety interventions are not the sole responsibility of the government. We might still be using hand signals instead of turn signals and brake lights.

Some think that line speed is the problem; that is, if the line speeds were slow enough, federal inspectors could identify the harmful bacteria. We wish they had that power. The fact is an inspector cannot see Salmonella. A modernized system must be put in place that prevents it from being on the carcass.

Our experience and 14 years of data show that the proposed system is better. USDA’s resources should be used to assess whether a plant’s food-safety system is actually doing what it’s supposed to do – testing for foodborne pathogens and analyzing data trends. In our opinion, these are things that actually make our meat and poultry safer and are a more appropriate role for a regulatory body.

B.M. Hargis, DVM, PhD, is Professor and Director of JKS Poultry Health Laboratory at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. Douglas Fulnechek, DVM, is president of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians and a Public Health Veterinarian at FSIS. (The views represented here are Dr. Fulnechek’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USDA or FSIS.)

© Food Safety News
  • John Munsell

    Dr’s Hargis & Fulnechek, I have yet to read where folks disagree with your perception that FSIS should not be checking animals for cosmetic defects. We’re all in agreement. I appreciate your conclusion in the last paragraph above “USDA’s resources should be used to………testing for foodborne pathogens and analyzing data trends”. You succinctly summarized what no one else is willing to do, including FSIS, which invests countless words but avoids precisely defining what HIMP inspectors will do. I am not at all convinced that FSIS intends to increase its microbial sampling of poultry carcasses at HIMP plants. Past articles on HIMP have stated that 600 – 800 inspectors will lose their jobs because of HIMP. How does FSIS intend to utilize the substantial payroll savings? Pay for greatly increased numbers of microbial samples? I doubt it. Why am I dubious of agency intentions? Well, let’s assume increased sampling will quickly reveal plants which have high levels of contaminated chicken. So what? Recent media articles about the unfortunate events at Foster Farms have revealed ongoing fecal contamination of poultry, but FSIS did not initiate any enforcement actions. How can it? The bacteria are but mere “contaminants”, and the agency’s intentionally inappropriate application of Performance Standards were properly brought into question with the Supreme Beef litigation. (This litigation is a story of its own, showing how FSIS erroneously charged SB with an insanitary plant based simply upon microbial sampling results. Performance Standards were not jettisoned, but FSIS was spanked for very good reasons). So, when HIMP inspectors ogranoleptically (oops, sorry to use that unscientific term) observe fecal-contaminated carcasses, or high (whatever that means) levels of lab microbial positives, so what? What authority do inspectors have to slow or shut down a line? Automatic career terminator, and likely court actions. Your statement above “All federal inspectors are authorized to take control if food-safety mistakes are made or if quality problems happen” is not merely misleading, but deceptive. What did these federal inspectors do at Foster Farms? In conclusion, please answer 2 questions for Food Safety News readers: (1) What % increase in microbial testing will FSIS conduct in HIMP plants, after terminating hundreds of inspectors? My concern is that the agency will instead opt to dedicate increased time to audit COMPANY-CONDUCTED test results……..from a respectful, deregulated distance. (2) What will be the level of lab positives and fecal-contaminated carcasses required to justify agency-mandated slow down or shut down of HIMP slaughter lines? If you, and FSIS cannot answer such simple questions, HIMP is all smoke & mirrors. John Munsell