WASHINGTON, May 17, 2013 – A little more than a month after Senate Appropriations Committee members helped USDA to avoid furloughing meat inspectors, the issue of inspection has reared its head in that committee once again. Yesterday, the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development and Food and Drug Administration questioned USDA officials on their proposed fiscal 2014 budget, and much of the attention fell to Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen and her Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) efforts to modernize poultry inspection.
Hagen says the service is hoping to use “regulatory tools (that) correspond with current knowledge," which will allow her employees to “tackle modern food safety challenges.” Hagen points out that the current poultry inspection system has its genesis in the 1950s, a decade with a dramatically different food system than the one USDA must oversee today.
In January of 2012, FSIS issued a proposed rule that the agency says would permit “FSIS to conduct more food safety related offline inspection activities, will allow for better use of FSIS inspection resources, and will lead to industry innovations in operations and processing.” FSIS would pass many quality assurance tasks over to private companies themselves, and inspectors would not look at carcasses until they were nearly ready to come off the line. Additionally, government inspectors would inspect a faster line (from 140 birds per minute to 175) and no longer examine the internal organs of poultry carcasses.
Hagen said yesterday that the new process could prevent “5,200 illnesses per year by changing where inspectors focused and what they’re performing.” She says FSIS has collected sufficient data to implement a modernization project through a pilot program, which has been in place in 20 poultry plants since 1998.
Still, senators remained skeptical of the effort. If the data points toward modernization, Subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor, D-Ark., pointed out, “Why is it not already final?” He pushed Hagen to accelerate the process of implementation.
But Hagen says FSIS is combing through “thousands of comments” pertaining to the proposed rule, noting her agency’s “obligation to consider and address every single one of those options.”
Hagen says FSIS is also working with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), amidst claims that faster speeds could hurt poultry plant workers.
There is one element of the plan that the money-tight Appropriations Committee should appreciate – Hagen says the proposal would save the government $90 million per year.
Last week, Secretary Vilsack testified before the same subcommittee that the rule would be implemented “very soon.” He said the plan will “allow the poultry industry to continue to be profitable, and allow [USDA] to save some money as well.”
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