In addition to new technologies and interventions to make food more safe and cost effective, some companies propose to redefine the concept of “USDA inspection.”
Numerous stories have been published in recent weeks relating to a waiver request submitted by Tyson Foods that proposes to reduce the number of inspectors in its facility.
In my opinion, it is always important to view proposals seeking to improve the way we process and inspect food objectively. Further streamlining processing practices and regulatory oversight, without jeopardizing food safety, is generally a good thing. It allows for the better use of critical, but limited, resources in other areas.
From a legal standpoint, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) staffing protocols are partially based on the number of carcasses to be inspected per hour. In its proposal, Tyson seeks to have employees perform pre-sorting, identification and trimming of head, viscera and carcass defects prior to post-mortem inspection by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors. The proposal states that Tyson employees could be trained through a certification program that includes classroom instruction, onsite production floor training, qualification and routine verification. Trained team members would then pre-sort carcasses and parts showing signs of food safety defects for inspection, and Tyson management (or management designees) would be responsible for verification activities.
Importantly, Tyson proposes to collect data to evaluate the equivalency between the proposed program and traditional inspection systems. This data would include validated antimicrobial intervention monitoring and process control sampling and analysis for microbial organisms. USDA inspectors would, of course, have access to all such data upon request.
Some experts, however, have weighed in to publicly critique the proposal. Dr. Pat Basu, the USDA’s former chief veterinarian, told NBC News, “Tyson factory workers without adequate training might miss critical signs of disease, drug injections or bacterial contamination — and remove the evidence before USDA inspectors [could] examine the carcasses.” The question then becomes whether Tyson’s training program could deliver the requisite amount of expertise. Presumably, USDA will carefully evaluate and assess the training as it considers the proposal.
According to Tyson, the purpose of the proposal is to “explore and implement alternative methods of postmortem inspection, which provide equivalent outcomes to current inspection methodologies.” The goals include pushing reform while allowing better use of the agency’s resources. It is unclear whether the proposal will be granted, or, if it is, whether it will be successful. As processors who may be affected by the proposal, it may be important to weigh in.