WASHINGTON, March 2, 2016 - Food Safety and Inspection Service chief Al Almanza defended new poultry inspection rules before a skeptical House panel last week while describing a similar plan for hog slaughter facilities.
Appearing before an Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee, Almanza said 51 poultry processing plants – nearly a quarter of eligible facilities nationwide – have opted into the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS), which uses company employees to sort the chickens and turkeys and places an FSIS inspector at the end of the line. The rule, which was adopted in 2014 and began to be implemented last year, also allows line speeds for chickens to increase to 140 birds per minute, up from the previous speed of 90 birds per minute.
That standard was criticized for being both too slow and too fast. Almanza agreed with Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., that FSIS had no data to show that the proposed speed of 175 birds per minute would have been any less safe than the standard in the final rule.
“Are you a safety and wholesomeness denier?” Harris asked Almanza. “Because you do the science, prove that the (proposed) line speed results in equal safety and wholesomeness… but then you decide not to expand that line speed anyway – I’m assuming, not based on science? Is that a correct assumption?”
“That is,” Almanza said. However, in the final rule, “We did say that over time we would analyze the data to see if there were any differences” in safety between 175 birds per minute and 140 birds per minute.
Questioned by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., about the type of training the company sorters undergo, Almanza said that each company has its own training methods. Almanza also disagreed with DeLauro’s characterization of the process in Australia and New Zealand, where she said the U.S. requires sorters for export poultry to “have some sort of certificate that they were trained in the proper way.”
But those sorters, Almanza said, “are performing inspection activities… We’re talking apples and oranges here.”
DeLauro also questioned the safety of the new system. Reflecting on an FSIS-sponsored visit to one of the facilities, she said, “You’ve got seconds to examine this product – seconds.”
“Our inspectors are trained to be able to determine if there’s anything wrong with those birds,” Almanza said. The inspector at the end of the line is verifying process control and “inspecting every single bird as they go by. So, if the birds at the end of the line are contaminated, then he knows that.”
The NPIS is still in litigation. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit filed by food safety and other groups late last year after concluding they did not have legal standing to pursue their claims. The plaintiffs have asked the court to rehear the case, however. The government recently filed a response opposing the request.
Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said it’s too early to tell how NPIS is working as some plants continue to opt in. “But whether a plant operates under traditional inspection, HIMP or NPIS, consumers can be confident in the safety and wholesomeness of the USDA-inspected chicken they purchase,” he said.
DeLauro also wanted to know when the new hog inspection process would be proposed. She and 59 other congressional representatives recently asked USDA to delay publishing a proposed rule until a thorough safety evaluation has been conducted.
Almanza said FSIS is preparing a risk analysis on the new process, known as HIMP – for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based Inspection Models Project.
“We need the risk analysis to be done, and we want to make sure that food safety, public health and humane handling are taken into consideration before we issue a proposed rule.”
However, “we really don’t have a concrete timeline,” he said.
DeLauro also was skeptical that Almanza has enough resources to ensure the safety of catfish imported into the U.S. from Southeast Asia.
“In 2013, 100 percent of Vietnamese catfish farms used antibiotics not approved in the United States,” she asserted.
FSIS is working to establish “equivalency” with Vietnam, Malaysia and other catfish exporters, Almanza said – meaning that the food safety standards in those countries would be equivalent to the United States.
“We have a team in Vietnam as we speak,” he told DeLauro. FSIS published its final catfish rule in December and plans to begin implementing the new system this month.
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