Federal regulators plan to trim the fat on poultry inspection costs in the U.S. by concentrating on measures proven to boost food safety and cutting out excessive steps, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday.

In a proposed rule, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) said it will be shifting its focus at chicken and turkey slaughter plants from supervising processing lines to evaluating a company’s food safety procedures.

Under current policy, FSIS is responsible for examining all poultry carcasses for blemishes or visible damage before they are further processed. 

Now the agency plans to turn this quality assurance task over to the poultry plant so that it can devote more of its employees to evaluating the company’s pathogen-prevention plans and bacteria-testing programs. 

To be clear, this restructuring does not mean carcasses will go unexamined by government inspectors.

“There will still be an inspector on the line looking at these birds, but that inspector will be looking at a bird that comes across with fewer defects because the sorting will happen at the beginning,” explained Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Elizabeth Hagen in a news teleconference Friday.

This in turn will free up inspectors to evaluate the plant’s sanitation procedures and test product for bacteria.

“We’ll spend our time and our resources on the critical food safety tasks. We believe this will result in a more efficient and more effective process and certainly a more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during the call with reporters Friday. 

The move will create a win-win-win situation, according to the government. It will cut costs for the agency by anywhere from $85- to $95 million over the next three years, boost the economy by $250 million, and provide cheaper, safer products to consumers, according to a peer-reviewed risk assessment

The proposed policy change will be voluntary – each plant can decide whether or not it wants to adopt the new system. However, FSIS says it expects around 200 of the country’s 300 processing plants to opt for the switch, because the new procedure is expected to boost profits by speeding up production lines. 

The rule is not mandatory because while it will make production safer and more efficient at larger plants, it could prove challenging or even impossible for small or very small plants to implement. 

The government says it has hard evidence that this new strategy will work. The shift from on-line to off-line evaluation has already been made at a handful of plants around the country. Results from these pilot programs, which have been in place for more than 12 years, have shown that this approach significantly reduces pathogen contamination. 

Based on previous experiences, FSIS predicts that with the new rule in place, Salmonella infections would fall by 4,286, from an estimated 174,686 Salmonella illnesses each year to around 170,000. And Campylobacter infections, which currently affect around 169,005 people per year, are expected to decline by almost 1,000.  

While the change in inspection practices will be optional, the rule also contains a handful of non-negotiable policies. 

All facilities will be required to have:

– Written procedures to ensure that carcasses contaminated with visible fecal matter do not enter the chiller, and 

– Written procedures to prevent contamination of carcasses and parts by enteric pathogens (e.g. Salmonella and Campylobacter) and fecal material throughout the entire slaughter and

dressing operation. At a minimum, plants must test for microbial organisms at the pre- and post-chill points.

The draft rule was met with praise from industry.

“As new research expands our ability to respond to food safety issues, it is essential that we embrace new inspection approaches that keep pace with that knowledge,” said American Meat Institute executive vice president James H. Hodges in a statement Friday. “While our knowledge has grown exponentially in the last two decades, there have been no major changes to our federal poultry inspection system during this period.  We commend USDA for embracing science and we look forward to working with them as they finalize the rule and implement this new approach.”

However, some consumer groups blasted the new protocol, saying that the Department of Agriculture is giving up control of poultry and leaving the industry to set its own food safety standards.

“Food & Water Watch vehemently opposes this plan and any other attempts to privatize food safety functions that are the responsibility of the federal government,” said the consumer watchdog group in a statement Friday. 

FSIS, however, says it is not surrendering any of its regulatory duties to industry, but rather strengthening its role in food safety. 

“This proposal would not privatize poultry inspection,” said Dirk Fillpot of FSIS in an e-mailed statement to Food Safety News. “The modernization effort being announced today would shift FSIS personnel away from performing sorting activities, which primarily serves a marketing function for producers, and focuses their efforts on conducting carcass-by-carcass and other inspection activities that will better ensure the safety of poultry available for consumers.”

Others questioned the validity of using an FSIS study of the pilot programs now in place as evidence that this new system will truly reduce the presence of bacteria on birds.

“There has been no thorough independent review of HIMP (HACCP Inspection Models Project) since 2001 when the GAO reviewed the program and raised serious concerns about the data presented by FSIS to justify the program…” said Chris Waldorp, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute. “FSIS’ announcement today pre-empts any independent review.” 

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the proof will be in the pudding.

“USDA should modify its inspection program carefully to ensure that the program reduces the unacceptably high levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter in chicken and turkey,” he said in a statement Friday. “One can’t escape the fact that the government is shrinking, and that historic programs like this one need to demonstrate their value. The proof will be in reduced contamination rates, leading to fewer deaths and illnesses.”

U.S. Rep. Rosa Delauro (D-CT) praised the move, but pointed out that attention must be payed to worker safety, since assembly-line paces are likely to increase.

“I strongly support modernizing our food safety system and making it more efficient — but we must not do this at the expense of worker safety and public health,” said the congresswoman Friday. “It is imperative that decisions regarding our food safety system are made with the public health as our highest priority. I look forward to working with the USDA and learning more about this proposed rule and ensuring that it does not compromise worker safety and the integrity of our food safety system.”

FSIS does not predi
ct that the new policy will put workers in any danger.

“We are as concerned as anyone about worker safety,” said Vilsack. “We want to make sure that those folks who are working on the line are working in a safe environment. We believe from experience in pilot plants that worker safety will not be compromised as a result of this new rule. 

“That being said, we are conducting a study with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health into the effects of faster line speeds on employees.”

The proposed rule will be posted soon in the Federal Register, and will be available for public comment for 90 days after it is published.