The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) yesterday announced a long-awaited "re-focused" and "science-based" inspection system for chicken and turkey products, along with additional food safety requirements for poultry processors. According to an FSIS news release, poultry companies will have to meet new requirements to control Salmonella and Campylobacter, and up to 5,000 foodborne illnesses will be prevented each year as a result of the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS).
"The United States has been relying on a poultry inspection model that dates back to 1957, while rates of foodborne illness due to Salmonella and Campylobacter remain stubbornly high," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The system we are announcing today imposes stricter requirements on the poultry industry and places our trained inspectors where they can better ensure food is being processed safely. These improvements make use of sound science to modernize food safety procedures and prevent thousands of illnesses each year."
FSIS will now require that all poultry companies take measures to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination, rather than addressing contamination after it occurs. Also for the first time ever, all poultry facilities will be required to perform their own microbiological testing at two points in their production process to show that they are controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter. These requirements are in addition to FSIS' own testing, which the agency will continue to perform.
FSIS is also introducing the optional NPIS, in which poultry companies must sort their own product for quality defects before presenting it to FSIS inspectors. This system allows for FSIS inspectors to focus less on routine quality assurance tasks that have little relationship to preventing pathogens like Salmonella and instead focus more on strategies that are proven to strengthen food safety. More inspectors will now be available to more frequently remove birds from the evisceration line for close food safety examinations, take samples for testing, check plant sanitation, verify compliance with food safety plans, observe live birds for signs of disease or mistreatment, and ensuring plants are meeting all applicable regulations.
Responding to FSIS' announcement, National Chicken Council (NCC) President Mike Brown said, "We look forward to reviewing the contents of the final rule and working with the department and our members on proper implementation should our members choose to opt in to the new, voluntary system."
An FSIS news release stated that the proposal to modernize the poultry inspection system was first published on January 27, 2012, and the modernization effort has been significantly informed by the feedback FSIS received from the public, as well as from interagency partners such as the Department of Labor. Specifically, USDA received numerous comments on the proposed rule related to worker safety, and it has partnered with the federal agencies responsible for worker safety to address those concerns.
FSIS officials said that in response to public comment, the maximum line speeds for plants that newly adopt the NPIS have remained capped at 140 birds per minute, consistent with the maximum speed under existing inspection programs. Additionally, all companies operating under the NPIS must maintain a program to encourage the early reporting of work-related injuries and illnesses, and FSIS employees will receive new instructions on how to report workplace hazards that may affect plant workers, including access to a confidential 1-800 number to report concerns directly to OSHA.
The line speed issue has been highly controversial during the past two and a half years, as evidenced by this statement from NCC's Brown: "It is extremely unfortunate and disappointing that politics have trumped sound science, 15 years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute. The rule also goes against global precedent, in which the limiting factors for line speeds are the ability to meet food safety standards, keeping workers safe, and the capability of the equipment to run effectively – not government regulations. Broiler plants in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Belgium and Germany, among others, all operate at line speeds of 200 or more birds per minute."
Line speed questions aside, FSIS estimates that the NPIS will prevent nearly 5,000 Salmonella and Campylobacter foodborne illnesses each year. Salmonella illnesses have remained steady, with some spikes, in the past 10 years, while Campylobacter is the second most reported foodborne illness in the United States. This new inspection model is a key part of the agency's Salmonella Action Plan, unveiled in December 2013, which is the agency's blueprint for addressing Salmonella illnesses from meat and poultry products. Also included in that plan are revised pathogen reduction performance standards for all poultry, and first-time-ever standards for poultry parts, which consumers commonly purchase. These new standards are expected to be announced later this year.