USDA seeks to modernize U.S. poultry inspection

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is proposing a modernization of young chicken and turkey slaughter inspection in the United States by focusing FSIS inspection resources on the areas of the poultry production system that pose the greatest risk to food safety.

“The modernization plan will protect public health, improve the efficiency of U.S. poultry inspections and reduce spending,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The new inspection system will reduce the risk of foodborne illness by focusing FSIS inspection activities on those tasks that advance our core mission of food safety. By revising current procedures and removing outdated regulatory requirements that do not help combat foodborne illness, the result will be a more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars.”

Currently, some FSIS employees in poultry establishments perform several activities that are unrelated to food safety, such as identifying visual defects like bruising, while others conduct the critical inspection activities. Under the proposed plan, all FSIS inspection activities will focus on critical food safety tasks, not quality issues. Additionally, some outdated regulatory requirements are being removed and replaced with more flexible and effective testing and process control requirements. Finally, all poultry establishments will now have to ensure that their procedures prevent contamination in the production process and provide supporting data to FSIS personnel.

These changes will not only enhance consumer safety but will improve efficiency, saving taxpayers more than $90 million over three years, and lower production costs at least $256.6 million per year.

FSIS will continue to conduct on-line carcass-by-carcass inspection as mandated by law. This rule will allow FSIS personnel to conduct a more efficient carcass-by-carcass inspection with agency resources focused on more effective food safety measures. Data collected by the Agency over the past several years suggests that offline inspection activities are more effective in improving food safety. Inspection activities conducted off the evisceration line include pathogen sampling, and verifying that establishments are maintaining sanitary conditions and controlling food safety hazards at critical points in the production process.

The American Meat Institute (AMI) called the USDA plan a step in the right direction. The proposal, if finalized, will build upon the success of a longstanding HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) pilot program, now in place in more than two dozen plants in the country. Data reveal that plants using HIMP have a lower rate of Salmonella on fresh products, which suggests that the approach is at least as good as the traditional approach to poultry inspection used in non-HIMP plants, according to AMI.

“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 AMI Executive Vice President James H. Hodges.  “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.”

Poultry industry groups also supported the planned changes.

“The poultry industry has spent millions of dollars and has made tremendous progress on reducing naturally occurring pathogens in raw products,” the National Chicken Council and National Turkey Federation said in a joint statement.  “We’ve succeeded at meeting or exceeding FSIS’ previous performance standards and we are confident that modernizing the poultry inspection system will enable us to build on our success in providing delicious, safe and wholesome food to our customers.”

Numerous studies have concluded that HACCP programs in poultry processing plants are working and have significantly reduced the incidence of pathogens and have prevented outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, the poultry groups’ statement said.

The proposal was posted Jan. 20 and soon will publish in the Federal Register. The comment period will end 90 days after the proposal publishes in the Federal Register and must be submitted through the Federal eRulemaking Portal or by mail to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), FSIS, OPPD, RIMD, Docket Clearance Unit, Patriots Plaza III, Room 8-164, 355 E St., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-3221. All items submitted by mail or electronic mail must include the Agency name and docket number, which will be assigned when it is published in the Federal Register.

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