Federal food safety officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) were all ears yesterday at a public meeting to discuss the recent proposed guidance on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) validation, a document that has sparked widespread concern and confusion among small and medium-sized meat processors weary of burdensome government regulation.

cutting-meat-featured.jpgIn 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 release of the document met resistance, especially in the local food and small business realm. Small-scale processors argue they’re already swimming upstream trying to build local and regional food infrastructure and surviving on slim profit margins. 

“I held [the guidance] for quite some time because I knew the impact it would have across the agency,” said Al Almanza, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator, at the meeting yesterday (the first of three on the matter).  “I think we need to clarify our position. I think a lot got lost along the way.”

Agency officials were very clear on two points during the meeting:  (1) the USDA is not issuing new regulations, rather it’s clarifying existing ones, (2) the agency is actively seeking input from processors of all sizes to ensure the guidance is ultimately practical and useful for industry to comply with HACCP validation.

“We’re not imposing any new regulations, said Phil Derfler, Assistant Administrator at FSIS’s Office of Policy and Program Development. “This is a regulation that’s been on the books since 1996.”

“We hoped that [this document] would help particularly small and very small plants know exactly what our expectations are,” added Derfler during the meeting, who noted the agency has received over 2,000 comments on the guidance.

Phil Kimball, executive director of the North American Meat Processors Association (NAMP) called on the agency to rewrite the guidance. “We do not believe the guidance provided practical guidance for small processors,” said Kimball, who added he believes real life, practical examples should be added to the document.

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.