USDA offers incentives for trying new Salmonella controls

Jul 12, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced plans to expand a program that relaxes certain regulations for meat and poultry processors that want to try out new ways to reduce Salmonella in their products.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced Jul 8 that it will waive certain food safety regulations for processing plants proposing to try new procedures, equipment, or techniques to control Salmonella. In return, the plants will be required to collect samples from each production line on every shift, test them for Salmonella and other common pathogens, and share the results with the FSIS.

"This program will encourage innovation by the industry to make food safer while providing us with data and information we can use to protect public health," said Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elizabeth Hagen in a press release.

The Salmonella Initiative Program (SIP), as it is called, was first announced in January 2008, and it has operated as a small pilot project until now, with just a few plants participating, according to FSIS officials. The expansion plan incorporates responses to comments the FSIS received after the initial announcement 3 years ago.

A draft Federal Register notice published by the FSIS explains that the agency's existing regulations permit it to waive regulatory requirements for limited periods "so that new procedures, equipment, or processing techniques may be tested to facilitate definite improvements." The program is open to all processing facilities.

The notice gives little information about what kinds of regulations the FSIS will waive for SIP participants, but an FSIS spokesman provided a statement saying that examples of waivers "include those made for time/temperature requirements, on-line reprocessing (OLR), the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), or other waivers that impact slaughter processes."

The Federal Register notice also says that the FSIS will relax restrictions on production line speeds for no more than five plants that applied for that waiver in 2008. The evaluation of the effects of increased line speed should include an examination of the effects on worker health and safety, it says, and therefore the agency has asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to conduct such monitoring.

The notice suggests that increased microbial testing will be an important result of the program. "SIP benefits public health because it encourages establishments to test for microbial pathogens, which is a key feature of effective process control," it states.

It says the program includes safeguards against increases in contamination: "If the establishment's results show it is not meeting the agency's current performance standards for turkey or young chickens, it is to increase testing, determine whether its waiver is affecting its public health protection performance, and take steps to regain process control in order to minimize the presence of pathogens of public health concern."

However, the notice also says a SIP participant will not lose its waiver solely because of its Salmonella testing results.

Other program provisions, according to the notice, include the following:

  • SIP facilities are not routinely required to provide pathogen isolates to the FSIS, "but, if requested, establishments must work with FSIS on a mutually agreeable means for doing so."
  • The FSIS is considering reducing the required frequency of product testing for SIP participants that meet the agency's Salmonella standard for at least 6 months and can maintain that performance with reduced testing. (The new performance standard for Salmonella, which took effect this month, is that the pathogen should not be found in more than of 7.5% of young chicken samples and 1.7% of turkey samples. The standard is not a requirement.)
  • The FSIS also may reduce the required frequency of product testing for small and very small facilities that participate in the program.
  • The agency will conduct its own unannounced product sampling and testing to check the performance of all facilities, including SIP participants.

Information about the SIP pilot project appears to be scarce. The FSIS spokesman said six young-chicken facilities are operating with waivers under the SIP project, and another 140 such plants have waivers under other programs. But he couldn't offer any details on how the SIP pilot program has worked out.

Tony Corbo, a lobbyist with the nonprofit consumer group Food and Water Watch, also said details about the program have been hard to come by. "We're not aware of exactly which plants [are involved], what waivers were granted, or how the evaluation is being done on the plants in order to take the next step," he told CIDRAP News.

"How the pilot has been operating up to now has been a mystery to a lot of us and I guess even to industry," he said.

Corbo commented that the increased testing required for SIP participants should be helpful to the FSIS.

The program "does increase the amount of testing industry has to do, and they have to share some of their own data with FSIS, which has always been a big problem with FSIS," he said. The agency does much more testing than the Food and Drug Administration does, and it may help it verify companies' control efforts, he said, "but statistically it may not be as robust as you'd want."

"FSIS has always been in search of additional data so they could see what's going on from a statistical standpoint, so this program would be a benefit to the agency," he added.

Corbo also commented that the FSIS announced back in 2006 that it was considering allowing facilities to increase their production line speeds—a proposal that concerned Food and Water Watch—but the agency never followed through at the time.

"We felt it could impact food safety with the USDA inspectors not being able to perform their tasks effectively," he said. "It was also an issue of employee health and safety."

He added that NIOSH has never taken a systematic look at the health and safety aspects of increasing line speeds, despite plenty of anecdotal reports of problems.

"Industry has been reluctant to allow NIOSH in," he said. "What's interesting about this notice is that a plant that wants to increase line speed has to allow NIOSH to study the health and safety aspects."

See also:

Jul 8 USDA news release

Draft USDA Federal Register notice

Mar 17 CIDRAP News story "Tougher USDA standards for poultry pathogens to take effect"

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