Throwing A Bone to Small Meat: USDA to Hold Public Meetings on HACCP Guidance

After much outcry from small meat processors weary of burdensome government regulation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will hold a series of public meetings to gather input from the public on a proposed guidance concerning Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) validation.

In March, FSIS released a preliminary draft validation guidance to address what the agency has called “a widespread lack of understanding” in HACCP validation, the cornerstone of USDA food safety policy. As USDA describes it, “The guidance does not create any new requirements on establishments, but rather clarifies existing requirements and provides direction on how processors, especially small processors, can meet them.”

“The guidance is being created to help establishments understand existing requirements, and they do not impose new testing or microbiological requirements on establishments,” said FSIS Administrator Al Almanza. “By receiving public input, we can ensure the guidance is helpful to plant owners and operators.”

The release of the document met resistance in the local food and small business realm. Small-scale producers argue they’re already swimming upstream trying to build local and regional food infrastructure and surviving on slim profit margins.

According to Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, FSIS is in the process of reaching out to small meat plants to clarify the intent of the guidance “so the hysteria will tap down.”

“I don’t think we did a very good job communicating on this and that created some confusion out there,” said Merrigan, on a recent call with reporters to lay out details on the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

“USDA is deeply committed to enhancing food safety in a way that supports small processors,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “FSIS’ transparent and open process for developing this guidance is designed to ensure that the agency can effectively help establishments of all sizes improve the safety of their products and reduce the incidence of foodborne illness.”

The first public meeting will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on June 14, 2010, in the USDA South Building, Jefferson Auditorium, 1400 Independence Avenue, Washington, DC.

Comments on the preliminary draft are due June 19, the agency will update the draft and release a second draft for comment in July.  As part of the second comment period, FSIS will hold two additional public meetings. The agency said it would announce details as soon as they are finalized.

The preliminary draft guidance and more information on validation are available on the FSIS Website.

To attend the public meeting, you can pre-register at the FSIS Website.