WASHINGTON – Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced Jan. 20 an overhaul of chicken and turkey inspection that will take most of the US Department of Agriculture Food Safety & Inspection Service employees off the evisceration line and put them to work making sure that poultry companies live up to their hazard analysis programs.

Industry groups welcomed the plan while activists opposed it as a “privatization” of the federal government’s responsibility for food safety.

"The modernization plan will protect public health, improve the efficiency of poultry inspections in the US, and reduce spending," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a conference call with journalists. "The new inspection system will reduce the risk of foodborne illness by focusing FSIS inspection activities on those tasks that advance our core mission of food safety. By revising current procedures and removing outdated regulatory requirements that do not help combat foodborne illness, the result will be a more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars."

The National Chicken Council (NCC) and National Turkey Federation (NTF) released a statement welcoming the new program.

“We are committed to working with USDA to ensure a science-based food inspection system works in a manner that would vastly improve food safety by using modern methods in the inspection system,” the groups said.

Meanwhile, Food & Water Watch, which has long opposed the revamp of federal food inspection, said it “vehemently opposes” the plan “and any other attempts to privatize food safety functions that are the responsibility of the federal government.”

“This proposal is unacceptable and violates the department’s legal obligation to protect consumers by inspecting every carcass and every bird produced in USDA-inspected plants,” F&WW executive director Wenonah Hauter said.

Vilsack said the new system will avoid about 5,200 cases of foodborne illness per year by improving the microbiological profile of raw chicken and turkey. It will also save the government more than $90 million over three years, mostly in reduced personnel costs, and reduce industry’s production costs by at least $256.6 million per year, largely through faster line speeds, according to USDA estimates.

Under the USDA program, company employees in most chicken and turkey slaughter plants would have the responsibility for checking eviscerated carcasses for visual defects such as bruising and sorting out those that are unlikely to pass federal inspection. A single federal inspector would be stationed at the end of the line, just before the chill tank, to conduct a final visual inspection. Vilsack said this would meet the requirement of federal law for individual inspection of chicken and turkey carcasses.

Other USDA personnel will work in the plant, but off the line, to ensure that the plant is meeting its pathogen reduction program and its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program, according to USDA materials released on Jan. 20.

The new program builds on the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Program (HIMP) that has been running in a limited number of chicken and turkey plants since 1998. Plants in the HIMP program perform as well, or better than, other plants in terms or avoiding or reducing contamination of carcasses by pathogenic microorganisms, according to USDA.

“The continued outstanding performance of plants participating in the pilot program justifies USDA’s confidence in announcing this proposed rule,” NCC and NTF said in their joint statement.

Plants would be permitted to run their evisceration lines at higher speeds than allowed by the existing inspection systems, USDA said. The new system would replace the Streamlined Inspection System (SIS) and New Evisceration Line System (NELS) now in place in most plants. About 200 chicken and turkey plants are expected to move to the system announced today, said Undersecretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen on the conference call.

An outside expert said USDA was moving in the right direction with the new program.

“This is a real improvement,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the Univ. of Minnesota. “You can’t see microbes on carcasses. This will require that the industry and the federal inspectors concentrate on the nodes of production at which contamination occurs.”