WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2015 – After fits and starts, the Agriculture Department is finally on track to overhaul the way it inspects poultry and start the inspection of catfish.

So far, just over 40 plants that slaughter chickens or turkeys have signed up for a new program, first conceived in the Clinton administration, that will move inspectors away from inspection lines so they can spend more time testing for pathogens and perform other tasks directly related to food safety.

Those plants represent less than 15 percent of the eligible facilities nationwide, but USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food safety, Al Almanza,  told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee that he expected the number to grow. 

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will likely begin implementing the new plan in July or August, Almanza said. The agency is currently negotiating with its inspectors union over the details about how the new inspection system will be carried out.

When the plan is fully implemented in about 100 plants, the program should save $10 million a year and reducing the poultry inspection staff by 282 full-time positions, Almanza said. 

The program has been running on an experimental basis in 25 plants, five of which slaughter turkeys. Quality control responsibilities, such as checking bird carcasses for defects, will be left to company personnel as the FSIS inspectors, who will rotate on and off the production lines, shift their focus to food safety.

Almanza denied an allegation by Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., that shifting FSIS inspectors away from the production line could put food safety risk.

“We’re going to be completing sometimes double and triple the number of foods safety tasks,” Almanza said. 

As part of a compromise, line speeds in the plants will be limited to 140 birds per minute, down from the 175 birds-per-minute permitted in the experimental program that had led to concerns that it would compromise worker safety. The 25 plants that participated in the experimental program, known by the acronym HIMP, be allowed to continue operating at the higher speed. Almanza, defending that decision, said the lower speed was “arbitrary.”

Some of the inspectors will be moved to catfish plants, while others may take early retirement.

Almanza also said that FSIS is on track to begin inspecting catfish processing once the Office of Management and Budget releases a final rule, likely in April, he said. The timeline for starting inspection will depend on what changes OMB makes in the rule, he said. The White House at one point proposed killing the inspection plan, which is opposed by the seafood industry, but Congress reaffirmed its support for the program in the 2014 farm bill.

USDA was first directed by the 2008 farm bill to take over catfish inspection, a high priority of U.S. producers who say they face unsafe, unfair competition from Asia. Vietnam, one of 12 countries that are part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, has complained strongly about the inspection program.

Almanza said he knew nothing about rumors that the White House was delaying final release of the inspection rule while the TPP agreement was being finalized.