Change often comes slowly at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, but it’s not always the agency’s fault.
This week produced one such example. Modernizing swine inspection has been on FSIS’s to do list for about 20 years. Last February, the agency published a proposed rule to make it happen after a final public comment period.
But veteran U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, thinks the new swine inspection protocols are coming way too fast. DeLauro, who serves on the House Democratic leadership team, this week got the House Appropriations Committee to accept her amendment to slow down swine inspection changes.
DeLauro, who has served Connecticut’s Third Congressional District since 1991, put forth the amendment requiring USDA’s Inspector General (IG) to investigate the issue and demanding USDA “resolve any issues identified before implementing the rule.”
The DeLauro amendment, also sponsored by Rep. David Price, D-GA, would not become law unless approved by the Senate and signed by President Trump. However, if it become law, it would be all but impossible to predict when the current regulatory process for swine inspections would come to an end.
Comments on the proposed rule were due on May 2, and USDA might go ahead and adopt a final rule before Congress will finish up its budget business for 2020.
Swine inspections are the last vestige of USDA’s “poke and sniff” era. As of May, 113 poultry plants have converted to the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS). Nine more conversions to the modernized process are in the works.
Just as proposed for swine, the modern poultry system gives inspectors more critical food safety assignments than just watching the production line. But like poultry, swine inspection modernization has generated controversy for more than two decades.
Existing swine inspections require USDA inspectors to spend a significant amount of time inspecting for quality-related defects rather than verifying food safety related process controls and the effectiveness of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) systems, according to the agency.
Under both the existing and proposed swine inspection systems, FSIS inspectors conduct 100 percent of the inspections before and after slaughter.
Existing inspection protocols limit production line speeds in pork plants and the ability of the businesses to reconfigure and consolidate lines.
The union-friendly National Employment Law Project, which has stirred the controversy in recent years, contends faster line speeds raise worker safety concerns.
DeLauro’s amendment requires the inspector general to review the data USDA used in proposing the rule to change swine inspections. DeLauro claims the rule “transfers vital inspection duties performed by USDA inspectors to company employees.”
While USDA does not comment on pending legislation, FSIS officials are on the record saying it is the only entity doing inspections as required by law.
Both the National Pork Producers Council and the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) want USDA to move forward with a final rule on swine inspections. Just as is occurring with poultry, the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) is a voluntary, opt-in program with separate mandatory testing requirements for all swine processing facilities.
In a statement, NAMI officials said the new system “supports risk-based, science-driven food safety systems” and “consumers deserve no less.”
The House Appropriations Committee has also proposed a budget provision prohibiting USDA from providing equine inspection services during the fiscal year 2020. No USDA-inspected horse slaughter has occurred in the United States since 2007, and except for 2012 and 2013, budget restrictions have continued the ban.
Meanwhile, some numbers emerged from the House Appropriations Committee mark-up of the Fiscal Year 2020 Agriculture/FDA appropriations bill. According to the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, $3.26 billion in discretionary spending is provided for in the mark-up, representing a $184 million, or 6 percent, increase compared with 2019
The funding bill could reach the House floor later this month.
The federal fiscal year 2020 begins on Oct. 1.
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