USDA: Poultry inspection shift will boost safety, save money

Jan 20, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a plan today to spend less time visually inspecting poultry carcasses and more time checking other safety variables, saying this will simultaneously improve food safety and save money for taxpayers and poultry companies.

The agency estimates that the new approach will prevent up to 5,200 illnesses annually while saving the government more than $90 million over 3 years and reduce poultry production costs by at least $256 million per year.

The government savings will come through reduction of its work force by 500 to 800 positions over 2 years, while the industry will save money mainly by increasing production line speeds, USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen said at a press conference today.

"The modernization plan will protect public health, improve the efficiency of poultry inspections in the U.S., and reduce spending," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release.

He said some Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors now spend time checking chicken and turkey carcasses for things that have no effect on food safety, such as bruises, while other inspectors check critical control points and sanitary conditions in the production process.

Under the new approach, Vilsack said, "All our inspection activities will be focused on these critical food safety tasks, and quality assurance tasks will be turned over to the company. We'll spend our time and our resources on the critical food safety tasks."

Hagen added, "We'll still be doing a critical appraisal of each bird. There'll still be an inspector on the line looking at these birds."

The new inspection system has been operating as a pilot project in some plants for several years, Vilsack explained. The program has been known as the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP). "We've actually had real-world experience with this," he said.

Switching to the HIMP approach will be voluntary for poultry facilities, Hagen said. "There are somewhere around 300 poultry establishments, and we expect that about 200 of them will want to participate," she said.

The FSIS conducted a peer-reviewed risk assessment in June 2011 to estimate the effect of the HIMP approach on human illnesses caused by contaminated poultry, according to USDA materials. The agency concluded that the change could prevent 4,286 Salmonella infections and 986 Campylobacter infections per year.

As for the improved efficiency, Hagen said, "The lower costs for industry will come from a variety of places, mainly that they'll be able to run their inspection lines at higher speeds than they do now."

In addition, "Some outdated regulatory requirements are being removed and replaced with more flexible and effective testing and process control requirements," the USDA press release states.

Also as part of the change, "All poultry establishments will now have to ensure that their procedures prevent contamination in the production process and provide supporting data to FSIS personnel," the release says.

Under the new system, maximum production line speeds will increase to 175 birds per minute for young-chicken plants and to 55 birds per minute for turkey plants, according to a Federal Register Notice from the FSIS.

"We believe from the experience in the pilot plants that worker safety will not be compromised as a result of this new rule," Vilsack told reporters. "Having said that, we're conducting a study with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health into the effect of line speeds on employees, and as that's concluded, we'll take into account any findings."

Vilsack said the new approach will affect about 2,500 people at the FSIS. "Up to 1500 people over time will receive upgraded positions and increased pay. Five hundred to 800 other positions will be phased out over a 2-year period," he said.

The USDA announcement won praise from industry groups and some food safety experts, but at least one consumer group expressed concern.

The National Chicken Council applauded the rule, calling it the logical result of "nearly 15 years of outstanding industry performance" under the Hazard Analysis/Critical Control Point program that was launched by the USDA in 1998. With the new system, the council said, federal inspectors will be stationed at the end of the production line to verify every poultry carcass meets the federal regulations, but inspectors will have more flexibility to patrol the plant and provide scientific oversight to ensure it is meeting food safety performance standards.

The pilot HIMP program has been operating in 20 chicken plants and five turkey plants since 1998, the council said.

The new approach drew qualified praise from Craig Hedberg, PhD, a food safety expert at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. "I think it is great that FSIS is shifting its focus from the visual inspection of every bird to focus on food safety risks. The results of the pilot studies were encouraging. Hopefully the optimistic estimates of cost-savings to the agency and to industry will be realized and consumers can be rewarded by better values in safer foods."

But Hedberg added, "Of course nothing is ever that simple, and in looking through the proposed rules, there is a lot of room for argument about exactly what standards FSIS will be enforcing. Food safety is a constantly moving target, and the best outcome will be a system where FSIS and producers work together to focus on critical issues, define best practices, and establish clear standards that can be used to weed out rogue producers who may seek to short-cut food safety."

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) voiced misgivings about the USDA plan in a statement today. The group said there has been no thorough independent review of the HIMP pilot program since 2001, when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) raised serious concerns about the data the FSIS used to justify it.

In addition, FSIS data show that some HIMP plants meet the performance standard for Salmonella, but others do not, according to the statement. Also, it said the FSIS has no data on the performance of HIMP plants in controlling Campylobacter.

"It was only last year when the agency proposed new performance standards for Salmonella and Campylobacter, and testing to those new standards has barely begun," the CFA said. "So consumers have no assurance that plants under HIMP can meet the new standards. It is unclear whether plants which are unable to meet the new standards will be allowed to continue operating under HIMP. Participation under HIMIP will provide plants with certain advantages such as increased line speeds. Plants that are unable to meet the new performance standards for reducing pathogens should not be permitted to continue to enjoy those advantages."

The USDA said it will take public comments on the new plan for 90 days.

See also:

Full FSIS Federal Register notice (248 pages)

Jan 20 FSIS press release

Summary of FSIS risk assessment

Jan 20 National Chicken Council statement

Jan 20 CFA statement

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