WASHINGTON — The US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service established specific goals for the meat and poultry processing industry. The agency wants American slaughterers, processors and overseas companies to better comply with food-safety practices and policies, in general, and it endeavors to address food-safety issues related to how American consumers handle their food.

The agency also wants its inspectors, meat and poultry companies, universities and others to work cooperatively to stop foodborne illness. Science must be better used to understand foodborne illness and dangers from emerging pathogens. FSIS needs to enforce its regulations to respond faster to current and future food-safety problems. Better training is needed for USDA employees so they can protect public health. And FSIS must use new methods and tools, including the Public Health Information System (PHIS), to increase food safety.

Those are some of the lofty goals for FSIS during 2014. According to Alfred Almanza, administrator of FSIS, the agency action plan provides American consumers and FSIS employees with a clear list of agency priorities – and the steps necessary to get them accomplished. “It’s an operational plan I intend to use during the coming months [through the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30] to both prevent foodborne illness and protect public health,” he says.

Putting it in writing

This is the third year FSIS has compiled a list of goals to accomplish during the coming fiscal year, as well as specific ways to achieve them. This annual performance plan is part of a strategic plan that started back in 2011 and runs until 2016 (the entire “Strategic Plan for 2011-2016” can be found on the USDA/FSIS website). Many are skeptical about written plans – whether they come from the government, private industry or a neighbor’s child who is operating a lemonade stand. But a plan laid out in writing puts people, and in this case the government, on record as to what they’d like to do. Whether they accomplish it or not is another issue entirely.

For example, the FSIS Office of Field Operations, which is in charge of inspection, feels it is very important to reduce the American public’s exposure to Salmonella in poultry. It will do this by concentrating on raw comminuted poultry in at least 75 percent of all eligible slaughtering/processing operations, and 25 percent of processing operations, using its 2013 Salmonella Action Plan. Reducing exposure to Campylobacter is also a priority. The office will also be working with countries exporting products to the US to fix non-compliance and other problems, before FSIS is forced to delist an exporting country or countries. One way it will do this is by monitoring port-of-entry violations and watching for repeat-violator countries.

USDA’s Office of Policy and Program Development, which translates agency policy and regulations into programs carried out at plants, plans to concentrate on the dangers of Salmonella, as well. It will make sure establishments producing comminuted poultry are effectively addressing the pathogen in Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs, explore how verification testing for Salmonella can be improved, and whether existing Salmonella policies are being implemented effectively.

The FSIS policy office will also work to reduce illnesses from raw ground beef and other products by assessing whether the agency’s verification instructions for both E. coli O157 and non-O157 STEC are being effectively implemented. FSIS will make changes, depending on what it finds. It will develop new regulations that will help modernize beef and poultry slaughter operations, reduce adulterants, and strengthen verification related to imported products. FSIS also hopes to finalize validation guidance, issue assistance to retail delis to help prevent Listeria monocytogenes, finalize poultry slaughter regulations, and issue instructions to implement them.

The agency’s science arm, now called a little awkwardly the Office of Public Health Science, will be working this year to improve understanding of the hazards and risks associated with products regulated by the agency, so there will be less exposure to these hazards and risks by American consumers. This will be done by using illness-reduction targets identified in the Healthy People 2020 report. FSIS wants to develop Salmonella and Campylobacter performance standards, including a baseline for beef, veal and comminuted poultry and chicken parts.

Whether FSIS accomplishes everything in what’s a truly immense collection of goals remains to be seen. The negative aspect may be that what is left undone is out there for all the world to see. The positive side is that those who are interested enough to look at the plan will see the important priorities that exist and the steps needed to be taken to make America’s meat and poultry as safe as possible.

USDA’s 2014 food-safety Goals

1 Ensure that food-safety inspection aligns with existing and emerging risks

2 Maximize domestic and international compliance with food-safety policies

3 Enhance public education and outreach to improve food-handling practices

4 Strengthen collaboration among internal and external stakeholders to prevent foodborne illness

5 Effectively use science to understand foodborne illness and emerging trends

6 Implement effective policies to respond to existing and emerging risks

7 Empower employees with the training, resources and tools to enable success in protecting public health

8 Maintain and use innovative methodologies, processes and tools, including PHIS, to protect public health efficiently and effectively to support defined public health needs and goals

Bernard Shire is Meat&Poultry’s Washington correspondent. He also works as a consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.