New rulemaking from the Department of Agriculture will allow swine slaughter facilities to opt in to a new inspection system that focuses on new requirements for microbial testing and pathogen control.

The final rule, announced today by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, will also require all slaughter plants to “develop written sanitary dressing plans and implement microbial sampling to monitor process control for enteric pathogens that can cause foodborne illness.”

USDA says the final rule for the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS) will “improve the effectiveness of market hog slaughter inspection; make better use of the agency’s resources; and remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles to industry innovation by revoking maximum line speeds and allowing establishments flexibility to reconfigure evisceration lines.”

National Pork Producers Council President David Herring lauded the rule, saying it will “further modernize our production process.”

“The U.S. pork production system is the envy of the world because we continuously adopt new practices and technologies, while enhancing safety, quality and consistency,” he said in a statement. “This new inspection system codifies the advancements we have made into law, reflecting a 21st century industry.”

Under the NSIS, slaughter plant facilities will now “sort and remove unfit animals” and develop a recordkeeping protocol to identify animals or carcasses removed from the slaughter process. That protocol would include a unique “tag, tattoo, or similar device” and the development of written procedures in the plant’s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. That protocol should “ensure that animals and carcasses sorted and removed for disposal do not enter the human food supply and are properly disposed of.”

Facilities would also need to keep records of the amount of animals or carcasses removed from slaughter and the reasons for their removal. Plant facilities would also have to immediately notify on-site FSIS personnel if they suspect a reportable or foreign animal disease.

NSIS also revokes maximum line speeds, but FSIS maintains the ability to slow or stop production lines as needed. FSIS will also continue to inspect all animals before slaughter and all carcasses during the slaughter process.

This approach, the final rule notes, will present FSIS inspectors with “with healthier animals and carcasses that have fewer defects, allowing them to conduct a more efficient inspection of each animal and each carcass.” The NSIS system would also allow FSIS personnel more time “to conduct more offline inspection activities that are more effective in ensuring food safety.”

Mindy Brashears, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for Food Safety, told Agri-Pulse a focus on other areas of the inspection process will lead to better food safety.

“I’ve been in this position for eight months, and I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time studying all the data, all the activities that went into informing this new swine rule,” she said. “I took it very seriously … and I am 100% confident that all the activities and everything done by the FSIS leading up to this will lead to a safer food product.”

Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said NAMI has not yet reviewed the plan in detail, but noted the option to operate under NSIS protocols and participate in “an opportunity for food safety innovation” is a “benefit to consumers and our industry at large.”

But food safety advocates and facility worker representatives have sounded alarm about the plan, saying it gives too much leeway to slaughter facilities. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which says it represents about 30,000 pork workers in the U.S., said the line speed increases would endanger plant worker safety.

“Increasing pork plant line speeds is a reckless corporate giveaway that would put thousands of workers in harm’s way as they are forced to meet impossible demands,” UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a statement.

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said the rule "will result in the fox guarding the henhouse." 

“It makes no sense to continue to yield more food safety oversight to industry. Trump’s USDA is clearly prioritizing the meat industry’s interests against the will of the American people, and in doing so, is wreaking havoc on public health."

Today’s action brings to a close a major food safety effort of the Trump administration’s USDA. The plan, originally proposed in early 2018, takes effect 60 days after being published in the Federal Register, after which eligible facilities will have 180 days to notify USDA of their plans to operate under the NSIS.

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