When you ask Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy undersecretary for food safety and administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) what her top priority is for making meat, poultry and egg products in the United States as safe as possible, she has a long list of issues she’s working on. But they really all focus on one thing: modernization of meat and poultry inspection in an effort to make American food safer.

Rottenberg became acting deputy undersecretary in August 2017 and was sworn in as permanent Administrator of FSIS earlier this year, in May. She’s hoping Mindy Brashears Ph.D., will assume the role she is filling on an interim basis, “so I can devote my time to modernizing FSIS,” she says. “We had regulatory reform roundtables this year, looking at ways to improve our regulations and how we do what we do.” Major steps include seeking establishment-specific Salmonella performance data and standards for poultry parts, ground and whole carcasses, as well as for Campylobacter. “We will be proposing these rules in the Federal Register,” she says.

And there are a lot more changes coming. For example: determining how laboratory-produced meat and poultry should be regulated; implementing a new voluntary inspection system for market hog slaughter plants; increasing the use of whole genome sequencing, or “food safety fingerprinting,” by the US Dept. of Agriculture, US Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and how Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs need to evolve after being used by the meat and poultry industry as a food safety structure for 22 years. Also on the radar is improving pathogen control for poultry and meat processing and slaughter plants. Additionally, recalls caused by allergens and foreign matter continue to be a problem.

Updating Efforts

These are a few of the issues and trends that have played increasing roles this year in food safety regulatory efforts. But it all comes down to bringing inspection and food safety efforts up to date, Rottenberg says. Two examples are the New Poultry Inspection System, finalized in 2014, and the New Swine Inspection System, proposed earlier this year, in the process of being formulated. Both are voluntary systems – the poultry system for young birds, the swine system for market hogs. There are currently 40 market hog establishments in the US, and under this system, inspectors won’t have to stand on production lines all day, instead moving to offline inspection activities.

“Even though meat and poultry plants have been operating under mandatory HACCP for more than 20 years, inspection remained a command-and-control operation very much at slaughter,” Rottenberg says. “The idea is to move inspectors away from performing quality control checks, and into more food safety activities.” The pilot projects began 20 years ago, but she notes it often takes quite a while to change a culture, a way of doing things – “that’s what we’re doing with inspection modernization. It’s a cultural shift, a big change in agency philosophy – it takes a lot of time,” she notes.

Rottenberg also refers to a major initiative to focus inspector tasks on food safety, rather than, for example, pointing out bruises on poultry or swine lines that plant employees need to cut out. “A good example is the increasing number of recalls this year and in previous years due to companies not listing allergens on labels. Or recalling because of extraneous and foreign materials found in products or packaging. By carrying out label verification tasks, inspectors are focused more on finding products containing these allergens and are quick to notify their district offices. The same with extraneous materials.”

As of mid-November, there had been 118 recalls and five public health alerts issued. Rottenberg notes that despite the increases in allergen and extraneous material-related recalls, recalls related to pathogens are also up. “There have been ready-to-eat (RTE) products containing vegetables tied to Listeria monocytogenes or Salmonella that came in for recall.”

Also being modernized is a tool very important to poultry and meat plants operating under inspection. It is the FSIS Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book. This year, it is being revised and updated. “This needs to be done through the rulemaking process, and a proposed rule is being prepared right now,” Rottenberg says. Another issue for modernization is line speed in the poultry and swine processing industries. “Line speeds only exist in slaughter, not further processing,” Rottenberg points out. In swine, speeds had been set 50 or 60 years ago, so the line speed cap is being eliminated,” she says. “In poultry, the cap has been 140 birds per minute, there is a proposal to raise it to175. Plants can apply for waivers from that lower speed, and we are in the process of collecting data on it right now. We would be doing rulemaking, and that should happen next year.”

Read the full report about FSIS initiatives in the coming year in the December issue of MEAT+POULTRY.