USDA-FSIS is beginning a pilot project to evaluate generic labeling requirements. 

WASHINGTON – Two years ago, the US Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) published a final regulation expanding the kinds of labels on meat and poultry products that could be approved generically, that is, without USDA approval. When this rule was approved and put into practice by USDA, there was a big sigh of relief in the meat and poultry industry.

Previously, label approval was an extremely bureaucratic process and getting most labels approved required meat and poultry processors to go through a lengthy and complicated procedure. It was a cumbersome process for most processors, but especially challenging for small and very small processors. As a result, most of the smaller companies in the industry, and even some of the bigger businesses, had to hire people who would do the footwork and “walk” their applications through the entire label-approval process. It was time consuming and expensive. And for processing companies that were expanding their businesses by making new products, it was frustrating to deal with USDA’s slow and bureaucratic procedures.

As part of this final rule expanding generic labeling in the meat and poultry industry, USDA developed provisions that would allow FSIS to assess how industry was complying with the protocols and restrictions that were part of these new procedures.

As a result, the inspection agency said it would assess compliance of generically approved labels by going into establishments and looking at samples of the already-approved labels in these plants. At the same time, FSIS was getting questions about whether generic labeling was effectively ensuring poultry and meat products were in compliance with government regulatory requirements.

As FSIS does so often, it starts many of its projects by testing how they work. In this case, FSIS is getting started by using a pilot project. How the agency is carrying this pilot project out, though, leaves a lot to be desired. USDA says it began this pilot project of generic labeling evaluation during the latter part of August. It started by visiting plants that are within commuting distance of FSIS headquarters in Washington, DC.

Instead of picking five plants that would represent operations inspected by FSIS, the agency decided to start at headquarters and visit plants within a distance of 25 miles or so. That way, it seems, no one on USDA staff will have to travel too far from its Washington office. Why not start out visiting plants that are a cross section of USDA-inspected plants that use generic labels for their products? To get its pilot program off the ground, why not pick a series of plants across the country representing a wide variety of meat and poultry establishments? While carrying out this “pilot phase” of the generic labeling evaluation program, FSIS is telling the five plants within “commuting distance” from Washington, DC, to bring labeling records they have stored off site to the plant itself for review. The agency, by the way, is planning to send two “labeling policy subject matter experts” and one “policy analysis expert” to these plants to take a look. At what?

The agency says it will take a look at all the generically approved label records in each plant and any records of label changes. They will use this information gathered during the assessment to set up a protocol they can use for plant and label record sampling, label record assessment, plus come up with some way of responding to deficiencies that they find in label records. Then, FSIS plans to use this protocol or plan of review to do periodic assessments of generically approved label records. FSIS plans to notify all plants they select for label record assessments before they actually start doing them.

So what happens if there’s a problem with the generic labels or with the records? What happens when the FSIS people find problems or deficiencies? They will decide if the deficiency is a public health problem. If there is a public health problem, the FSIS people who find the problem will contact the inspector in charge or the front line supervisor to let them know about the problem.

If there isn’t any public health problem, the investigators will just tell the plant management about the labeling problem, and the plant could apply for temporary approval to continue using the deficient label until the correct labels can be printed. Of course, records of all of this will have to be kept.

The idea of looking at plant labeling records and seeing if generic labels are being created and used in a way that will be helpful to consumers is a good one. But FSIS needs to take another look at how this project is going to be carried out, and see if the process can be improved.