USDA to roll out “modernized” poultry inspection system Reply

By Richard Lobb on 1/20/2012

from www.meatingplace.com — reprinted by permission

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced today that USDA will all but abandon the food inspection system under which federal inspectors examine chicken and turkey carcasses on the slaughter line by sight, touch and smell and move to a modernized system stressing offline quality assurance.

“The modernization plan will protect public health, improve the efficiency of poultry inspections in the U.S., and reduce spending,” Vilsack said in a conference call with media. “The new inspection system will reduce the risk of foodborne illness by focusing Food Safety and Inspection Service inspection activities on those tasks that advance our core mission of food safety.”

Employees of the companies that operate young chicken and young turkey slaughter plants will be responsible for sorting out carcasses that exhibit defects such as bruises or broken bones, Vilsack said. A USDA inspector will be stationed at the end of the evisceration line, just before carcasses enter the chiller, to provide a final visual inspection and satisfy the legal requirement for carcass-by-carcass inspection. Other USDA personnel will work off the line conducting checks of the plant’s pathogen reduction program.

The new system has been in effect for several years in 20 chicken plants and five turkey plants under the name HACCP-Based Inspection Models Pilot, or HIMP. Vilsack and Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary for food safety, said the results of the long-running HIMP trial justified the decision to roll it out nationwide.

“We’ve been able to establish that this will result in a safer food supply,” Vilsack said. “We actually have real-world experience with this.”

The traditional system of “organoleptic” inspection, in which USDA employees check each slaughtered carcass for defects or visible signs of animal disease, has been in effect since the late 1950s. Development of a more modern system began nearly 20 years ago, but it faced opposition from some consumer groups and from the labor union representing USDA inspectors.

Vilsack said implementation of what is officially called the New Poultry Slaughter Inspection System will save the government $15 million in the first year of and up to $45 million per year in the future. He said the change will affect as many of 2,500 people currently employed by FSIS, with 1,500 of them being upgraded to food safety position while 500 to 800 line inspectors and 140 supervisors being “phased out” over a one or two year period. Those positions will not be “backfilled” when personnel leave employment, Hagen said.

Companies will save money through more efficient operations including faster evisceration line speeds, Vilsack added. He said USDA estimates the total savings to the economy, including lower consumer prices, at more than $250 million per year.

While the new system is technically voluntary for poultry companies, Hagen said she expected about 200 slaughter plants to participate. Many plants now have waivers that allow them to run at higher line speeds than allowed by the traditional inspection systems. The waivers will be abolished, she said, leaving plants with the option of the new system or the traditional, slower lines.

Vilsack said the new system would avoid as many as 5,200 cases of foodborne illness per year. According to documents released by USDA, that includes a reduction of 2.5 percent of the illnesses attributed to Salmonella from poultry every years and less than one percent of the illnesses attributed to Campylobacter.

The proposed program will be open for comments for 90 days after it is published in the Federal Register. Vilsack said USDA is especially interested in comments from small and very small plants about any difficulties they may have in adjusting to the new system.

Initial reaction was mixed.

“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.”

The activist group Food & Water Watch denounced the proposal.

“This proposal is unacceptable and violates the department’s legal obligation to protect consumers by inspecting every carcass and every bird produced in USDA-inspected plants,” said Executive Director Wenonah Hauter.

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