For a long time, the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has focused on being the chief government inspection agency for America’s meat and poultry products plus some types of egg products. FSIS has always been considered an inspection organization, with emphasis on enforcing rules and regulations plants must follow, rules deriving from the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA).

But since the advent of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point programs (HACCP), FSIS has made clamored about its role in protecting public health. Less emphasis has been on enforcing regulations meat and poultry slaughterers and processors must meet in order to produce products they can sell in US commerce. USDA officials knew the reason for inspection was to protect public health, not just to establish rules industry companies would have to conform to if they wanted to operate their businesses.

Last month and this month, USDA took giant steps toward that goal by allowing industry to start participating in what FSIS is calling its “Public Health Information System.” While the government part of this new plan allows FSIS to place a greater emphasis on and angle its activities more toward protecting American public health rather than just enforcing rules from the Code of Federal Regulations, the industry sector will allow inspected establishments to receive information directly via computer from FSIS (participation is voluntary), rather than waiting for inspectors to give them the information. Companies will be able to view and print noncompliance records given to them by the agency, eventually file appeals to those NCRs directly, print sampling results and see and print the profile their establishment has with FSIS.

User-friendly system

Alfred Almanza, FSIS administrator, says the new system is a user-friendly, web-based application that replaces many of FSIS’ current systems, and will apply to domestically inspected slaughterers and processors plus importing and exporting companies. The new plan replaces the Performance-Based Inspection System (PBIS), which was the guideline for poultry and meat inspection for many years.

Almanza says the new system reduces paperwork and consolidates inspection into a computer-run plan driven by data. The government hopes to organize inspection and food-safety data in a better way, resulting in safer meat and poultry for American citizens.

Almanza thinks the Public Health Information System will result in more informed decision-making by both inspectors and plant management and operators; inspection tasks, including sampling and other inspection activities, can be tailored for public health priorities by using specifics about plant operations, and previous verification results. Plant owners are given information about what they need to do to maintain their plant profiles.

He says the system supports better communication between plant management and inspectors, and lets both know when food safety and public health tasks have been completed. The plan will hopefully result in better follow-up between plant operators and inspectors. Certain procedures will automatically be scheduled, depending on what is found in a plant based on positive sampling results.

The purpose of the plan, Almanza says, is for industry and FSIS to collect, process and analyze food-safety data to more effectively protect public health. He views this as a joint government/industry project that will benefit both entities in the long run by facilitating the production of safer meat and poultry, resulting in consumers experiencing fewer foodborne illnesses.