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 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.

And there are a lot more changes coming. For example: determining how cell-cultured 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.

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 and in the process of being formulated. Both are voluntary systems.

Carmen Rottenberg, Administrator of FSIS (Source: USDA)

“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.”

Rottenberg says as of mid-November, there had been 118 recalls and five public health alerts issued. 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.”

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 to 175. 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.”

Modernizing efforts

Some changes in the food safety system include moving inspectors away from quality control activities. (Source: Adobe Stock)

New technology is also enhancing the safety of the American food supply, according to a meat scientist who for years has been greatly involved in helping the meat and poultry industry and government regulators move in a new direction. “The food industry and the associated regulatory agencies are committed to food safety, and the industry continues to improve process control to enhance the safety of the food supply,” says Kerri Gehring, Ph.D., professor of meat science and HACCP coordinator in the Dept. of Animal Science at Texas A&M Univ. in College Station, Texas. FDA is implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and USDA has been putting the Modernization of Poultry Slaughter into effect, while this year, the Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection System is on the docket for approval. Both plans require plants to comply with new microbiological sampling requirements and allow inspectors to spend more time focusing on food safety.

While USDA and FDA will both play roles in regulating cell-cultured meat and poultry, Gehring believes cell-based meat has a potential role in meeting protein needs in the US and the world. She doesn’t think it will replace traditional agriculture, and based on global demand, believes there is enough room for both alternative and traditional protein sources. “This year and next, many details will have to be resolved about how cell-culture will be regulated and the costs of the product,” she says.

Whole genome sequencing (WGS) is also becoming more important this year, even though it’s not a new process. “WGS is a laboratory procedure that provides genetic fingerprints for bacteria found in food or the environment,” Gehring explains. “It can be combined with epidemiological data to help identify and trace outbreaks faster and with greater accuracy, which could help reduce and prevent related foodborne illnesses. Care should be taken to insure it’s used appropriately.”

New steps are being taken to improve pathogen control for processing. “Meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants are using scientific data to improve their processes. Overall, I think the meat and poultry industry is becoming more data-driven, which helps improve consistency and allows for better control of pathogens,” Gehring explains. She cautions there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to food safety.

Over the past few years, recalls for pathogen-driven problems have dropped, while recalls for products containing allergens not noted on labels, and food items containing foreign substances have been rising. Gehring thinks these recalls happen because of failing to clean between products containing allergen and non-allergens, reformulating of ingredients to include an allergen not previously in the product or accidental contamination. “I think both industry and government are reviewing and evaluating programs to make sure consumers are protected,” she says.

HACCP regulations

Gehring has played a major role in designing and implementing HACCP for meat and poultry producers, going back to the very beginning of the regulation. “HACCP is dynamic, and there are still challenges within development and implementation of optimal HACCP systems. Science and technology have improved since HACCP was first implemented, so establishments have reassessed and revised their plans accordingly,” she notes. “Over the years, I would say HACCP has evolved from a basic HACCP plan to an entire HACCP system that includes the plan itself, sanitation programs, purchase specifications and many other prerequisite programs. Validation is also a major focus now and in the past few years. Establishments are using scientific and in-plant data to validate that their entire HACCP systems are working as designed,” she says.

The Texas A&M meat scientist also is optimistic about the continued growth and success of the small meat and poultry industry – despite the growth of mammoth food outlets like Amazon and Walmart, as well as meal kits and online buying and ordering.

“There has been an increase in meal kits, online purchasing and home delivery systems. But at the same time, there has also been an increase in demand for locally grown and raised foods. Smaller processors are frequently able to fulfill consumers’ expectations for locally grown and raised foods. The number of farmer’s markets or niche type of markets that are selling meat and poultry is growing. Also, many retail stores are including local products,” she points out.

Meeting consumer demands and expectations are a critical responsibility for the food industry, Gehring says, and consumer attitudes are changing – from pre-packaged, quick-fix foods years ago, to organic, natural and “clean” labels today. The role of science will continue to increase, and advances in science and technology will help address food safety, security and defense in the future, she says.