Protecting poultry

by Bernard Shire
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Political groups wanting to stop the US Dept. of Agriculture’s plan to modernize its poultry inspection with its proposed HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) regulations are going all-out to do so. And they’re not letting the truth stand in the way of their charges against the plan that would greatly improve food safety in the US poultry-processing industry.

A group of 68 members of Congress, virtually all of them Democrats, wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to withdraw the modernization plan, claiming it would result in less food safety and make the slaughter of poultry less humane. HIMP replaces some inspectors with poultry-plant employees and allows plant lines to be sped up.

Under HIMP, USDA inspectors will dedicate their time to pathogen detection on raw poultry, while plant employees carry out visual inspection for defects and other quality-assurance tasks.

Virtually all the signers of the Congressional letter are Democrats, including US Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Jim Moran (D-Va.), Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), many of them from states with little or no agriculture, poultry or meat processing. They are asking USDA to delay implementing the new regulations until the agency can review how the new policies would affect food safety, as well as the welfare of the animals involved. These Congressional opponents are joined by anti-agriculture pressure groups whose ultimate goal is to do away with the consumption of poultry and meat by the American public – period.

Another group of legislators, 13 US Senators, have also contacted Secretary Vilsack, asking him to put the poultry modernization rule into effect. Unlike the opposing legislators, this group is bi-partisan, made up of Democrats and Republicans. They also come from states where there is a great deal of agriculture, poultry and meat processing.

USDA has said the plan would improve inspection by allowing inspectors to seek and find pathogens, while having plant employees carry out visual inspection for defects and other quality-assurance tasks having nothing to do with food safety. The Congressional, anti-modernization letter raises concerns about pathogens like Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination in poultry processing, but opposes USDA efforts to better fight those pathogens. In fact, the poultry-modernization plan would help prevent more than 5,000 illnesses and save more than $80 million in health-care costs every year by putting the attention of USDA inspectors on what really matters – eliminating Salmonella and Campylobacter. Right now, these inspectors largely waste their time by looking at birds, carcass by carcass, searching for bruises and bumps. These bumps and bruises do not put the health of Americans at risk, Salmonella and Campylobacter do.

“We cannot continue doing the same thing we’ve been doing since the 1950s.” – FSIS Administrator Alfred Almanza.

By adopting the modernization plan, poultry inspectors would be free to focus their attention more on food-safety work, such as oversight and verification, microbiological testing for pathogens, sanitation standards and antimicrobial controls that operate in poultry plants. The effectiveness of this system has been proven and demonstrated by means of a pilot program that was run in 25 poultry plants for more than 14 years. This proposed rule includes data that compared performance measures at the pilot plants and “traditional” plants. It found the pilot plants performed as well, or better than, traditional plants on key standards.

The bi-partisan leaders of the House Agriculture Committee – Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Ranking Member Colin Peterson (D-Minn.) – also sent a letter to Secretary Vilsack asking that the Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule be implemented as soon as possible. The letter stated that they know USDA is very supportive of the rule, and asked Vilsack when the rule would be moved forward. They also noted that based on FSIS projections of its budget cost-savings analysis, the government would save $14.6 million the first year, and almost $40 million in subsequent years.

FSIS Administrator Alfred Almanza notes that the poultry inspection modernization plan also helps to further transform FSIS’ focus to public health and reduce foodborne illnesses even more.

“Today, we inspect poultry much the same way as we have during the [Dwight D.] Eisenhower Administration, evaluating the quality of each carcass and doing industry’s quality-assurance work for them,” he notes.

During the 1950s, quality assurance was thought to be the best way to keep the public safe. But since then, scientific knowledge has advanced and helped to identify the real threats to food safety – pathogens.

“We cannot continue doing the same thing we’ve been doing since the 1950s,” Administrator Almanza says.

In the HIMP pilot plants that have been running for the past 15 years, under a rule that would be expanded to virtually all poultry plants under the modernization rule, the poultry produced has lower rates of Salmonella, a pathogen that sickens more than one-million people in the US every year. The plan does not turn inspection over to industry to determine what is safe for consumers, instead poultry inspectors will be in every plant, ensuring the safety of the poultry products, he says.

“In the 34 years of my career focused on food safety, I have seen – again and again – the need to modernize to keep up with the latest science and threats,” Almanza adds. “This poultry-slaughter modernization proposal is about protecting public health, plain and simple.”

Bernard Shire, based in Lancaster, Pa., is M&P’s Washington correspondent. He also is a food safety consultant with Shire and Associates.

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