WASHINGTON – In its 2020 highlights, the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service summarized the complex challenges and accomplishments throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

The FSIS summary outlined its progress in modernizing its operations and protecting public health by preventing foodborne illnesses. 

“This has been a challenging year, but FSIS has continued moving forward with its food safety mission,” said Mindy Brashears, PhD, undersecretary for food safety. “FSIS employees stepped up to ensure that safe and wholesome food continued to be on the American dinner table.”

According to its summary, during the 2020 fiscal year, FSIS officials inspected nearly 9.68 billion poultry carcasses and more than 166 million head of livestock. During the year, inspectors carried out about 7.3 million food safety and food defense procedures in 6,500 federally inspected US plants where poultry, meat and eggs are produced.

Following the pandemic outbreak, FSIS said it allowed inspectors in high-risk health categories to self-certify with supervisors and were excused from inspection duties with full pay until personal protective equipment (PPE) was made available. 

During COVID-19, the agency held multiple weekly town hall calls with senior leadership and responded to nearly 1,000 feedback emails. FSIS also hosted calls with all FSIS-regulated establishments to address pandemic questions.

“No FSIS regulated establishments closed due to a lack of inspection personnel, as the agency continued to fulfill its congressionally mandated mission to provide safe and wholesome meat, poultry, and egg products to consumers,” the agency said. “FSIS supplemented its inspection personnel by increasing the number of hours part-time workers could work and by calling on other USDA employees trained in inspection from FSIS, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).”

FSIS allowed temporary labeling flexibility through the end of 2020 since many facilities were redirecting products from foodservice locations to retail. With the labeling approval process changes, the agency said it took 5 to 7 days, compared to a much longer time in previous years. 

Webinars were hosted to update compliance guidelines on label approval, updated animal raising claims and bioengineered/non-GMO labeling guideline. 

Vermont and Iowa became the most recent states to sign a Cooperative Interstate Shipment Agreement (CIS), which gives certain state-inspected plants that comply with federal inspection requirements permission to ship their product in interstate commerce. 

Some of the 2021 FSIS plans to explore improvements to beef slaughter inspection; implement updated Salmonella performance standards for raw ground beef and beef manufacturing trimming and propose a quarterly virtual roundtable with small to very small plants with congressional participation. 

More information on the FSIS update can be found here.