For the past 15 years, USDA conducted a pilot project to inform how we modernize our inspection process – all to ensure that meat and poultry is safe to eat. Today, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), released a report on the project, known as the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), and how FSIS has relied on it to propose a modernized approach to inspecting poultry. While an initial scan of the press coverage may lead you to believe that GAO discredits this proposal, that is not the case. GAO gave HIMP a thorough review and made just two recommendations, both of which FSIS is already working to fulfill. GAO chose not to include some facts that also deserve public disclosure. FSIS put forward this proposal because data shows that a system like HIMP will prevent at least 5,000 more foodborne illnesses annually. The study that FSIS has conducted of HIMP provides an appropriate basis on which to judge the merits of this system. Approximately 10 years ago, FSIS asked an independent group of experts in poultry microbiology, statistical evaluation, poultry food safety and public health to evaluate our study. These experts supported FSIS’ study design and found that that our approach was valid. But GAO’s report does not mention this food safety conclusion. GAO’s report also assumes that the basis for moving forward with this proposal is to improve efficiency and save taxpayer dollars. Although it does accomplish both of those things, as FSIS made clear to GAO, this proposal is first and foremost about making food safer. As an agency responsible above all for protecting consumers from foodborne illness, we are obligated to ensure a more modern and better system at hand. In other words GAO did not evaluate this from a public health angle – Rates of illness caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter have been stagnant, even showing occasional rises, in recent years. We must reverse this trend, and if we are to do so, one thing is clear: we cannot continue inspecting poultry the way we have been for over 50 years. Here is what the data tells us:
- Under the HIMP, FSIS inspectors complete more inspection tasks “off the line” that verify that the plants they work in continuously satisfy food safety performance standards.
- Fecal material, the primary avenue for pathogen contamination, appears about half as often in HIMP establishments as it does in non-HIMP establishments. HIMP establishments are also checked four times more often for fecal material by FSIS inspectors as are non HIMP establishments.
- The average positive rate for Salmonella in HIMP establishments is 20% lower than the average positive rate in non-pilot establishments.
If finalized and implemented broadly, this new inspection system would enable FSIS to better fulfill our food safety mission. Nothing in the GAO’s report contradicts this basic fact.