Political pressure

by Bernard Shire
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Pressure continues to ramp up on the meat and poultry industry, with the introduction of new proposals in Congress to ramp up food-safety requirements for slaughterers and processors. US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced legislation, that among other things would maintain the current levels of meat and poultry inspectors.

At the same time, the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is making efforts to cut the number of its meat and poultry inspectors. One way USDA-FSIS is trying to do this is by turning over more duties that were formerly carried out by meat inspectors to the industry itself. This means, Sen. Gillibrand’s plan would directly contradict the agency’s efforts.

But the poultry industry, in particular, as well as USDA have shot back that the experiment underway that supports proposed modernization of poultry inspection supports the changes being considered by Sen. Gillibrand’s legislation.

Increased authority

Sen. Gillibrand chairs the Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Poultry Marketing and Agriculture Security in a legislative chamber controlled by the Democrats. She says her bill would give USDA more enforcement power over the meat and poultry industry, including the ability to shut down companies from operating that fail food-safety tests again and again. Right now, USDA doesn’t have that kind of authority.

Sen. Gillibrand’s bill would also create new performance standards that the poultry and meat industry would have to follow, and give the agency more power over the industry when new pathogens are discovered and show up in meat and poultry products. It would also provide more “whistleblower” protection to people working in the industry who want to report alleged violations of meat and poultry regulations to the government.

The legislation was introduced by Sen. Gillibrand as part of a response to FSIS’ HACCP-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP). The goal of the project, underway for a number of years, would make it possible for new poultry inspection rules to be put into place by federal government regulators. Gillibrand said the legislation has been proposed in response to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report responding to proposed changes in poultry and hog inspection. GAO says the poultry project was continuing to move forward without proper data collection or evaluation by FSIS. But contrary to that assessment, the National Association of Federal Veterinarians said new poultry inspection rules are good, and urged the government to finalize the new rule as soon as possible.

On the other side of the coin, the GAO, in its report, praised the new direction that food safety is taking under proposed new poultry inspection plans based on HIMP.

The National Chicken Council, representing the broiler industry, said plants should be given the authority to have the responsibility and flexibility to implement food safety and quality. NCC also said poultry inspectors should play a greater role in food safety. Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for NCC, says the industry and government should be able to continue changing inspection from a system put into practice 56 years ago. USDA responded to the GAO that it has already updated the analyses used in the HIMP plan to support the proposed inspection modernization rule.

Pros and cons

Sen. Gillibrand is also critical of the FSIS plan that would allow increased line speeds in poultry-processing plants. Her legislation would also allow better recalls to consumers about contaminated products; set criminal penalties for firms putting unsafe products in the market place; prevent adulterated foreign meat from coming into the US by requiring FSIS audits; and increase the emphasis on prevention and occupational safety and health throughout the food safety system.

Peterson counters that it would not be in the best interests of poultry slaughter and processing plants to increase line speeds if the action would be harmful to plant employees or hurt the quality of poultry products being produced. She also noted USDA is planning to create compliance guidelines to help industry train employees to conduct carcass and viscera sorting activities.

Another bill coming down the pike right now aimed at meat and poultry processors would change how ingredient labels are designed and formulated by making them, at least in the opinion of bill sponsors, more modern and easy to read. Currently, package labeling is criticized because consumers don’t pay much attention to them. Whether changing the size and design of lettering on labels would make any difference is debatable.

Bernard Shire is a contributing editor based in Lancaster, Pa. With a background in editing and writing for daily news publications, he also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.

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