WASHINGTON, January 25, 2012 -USDA is proposing the first major overhaul of its chicken and turkey slaughter inspection methods in 50 years by having its inspectors focus less on quality defects and more on the areas in poultry plants that carry greater risk of contamination with disease-causing pathogens.

Industry groups were quick to welcome the change, while consumer advocates were divided, some giving guarded endorsement but others opposing it. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says the system will both improve food safety and reduce costs for the industry and for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. The savings would come from assigning to company workers some tasks, including identifying bruising or discoloration of birds, now done by FSIS.

“There will still be an inspector on the line looking at these birds, but that inspector will be looking at a bird that comes across with fewer defects because the sorting will happen at the beginning,” Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen said in a news teleconference. The scheme would give FSIS personnel more flexibility to patrol the processing plant and provide scientific oversight to ensure the plant meets food safety performance standards, USDA said.

The changes are estimated to save the government more than $90 million over three years by shifting about 1,000 workers to higher-priority jobs, and reduce industry's production costs by at least $256.6 million per year, according to a USDA paper.

The changes are “the logical outgrowth of nearly 15 years of outstanding industry performance” under HACCP procedures implemented in 1998, the National Chicken Council and National Turkey Federation said. “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.”

Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, often a critic of USDA and the food industry, said that changes should be made carefully to ensure that Salmonella and Campylobacter are reduced. “One can’t escape the fact that the government is shrinking, and that historic programs like this one need to demonstrate their value,” he said.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a frequent critic of USDA, also endorsed the move.

But the Consumer Federation of America’s Chris Waldrop questioned the validity of the data that USDA cited to support the changes.

And Wenonah Hauter of Food and Water Watch, which finds fault with most USDA policies, said that it would privatize food inspection. In a USDA pilot project with the new system in two dozen slaughter facilities since 1998, she said, there have been reports that company employees who have assumed inspections from FSIS are not properly trained or given authority to stop unsafe products from leaving the plant.

USDA’s assessment of the new system can be downloaded and read by clicking HERE.


Original story printed in January 25, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.