WASHINGTON – By mandating that food safety inspections no longer focus on the visual imperfections of poultry carcasses at processing plants, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said up to 5,200 foodborne illnesses can be prevented and up to $40 million per year can be saved by eliminating inspection jobs, according to a Bloomberg report. On Jan. 20, the US Department of Agriculture is announcing details on its proposal to increase the oversight of sanitation measures at poultry processing facilities as opposed to visually inspecting carcasses for physical blemishes, which it says are not food safety threats and can save the industry $250 million annually. Between 500 and 800 inspector positions and an additional 140 supervisory jobs will be eliminated, Vilsack said, mostly through attrition and retirement. Today’s proposal will include a 90-day comment period during which the public will be allowed to express concerns.

“It’s obviously about safer food and fewer foodborne illnesses,” Vilsack said in the report. “It’s also about reducing the cost of production in an effective way without redundancy or compromising safety.”
Poultry carcasses would continue to be inspected prior to chilling, Vilsack pointed out, and federal inspectors would continue to be on site at all times. Inspecting for physical imperfections, which has been conducted by USDA for more than a century, would still be available at the request of processors.

The proposed change was issued after a decade-long pilot program was conducted with 25 processors and showed no increased risk of worker injuries related to faster production lines resulting from eliminating the visual inspector. The change would speed up the inspection timeline from 140 to 175 chickens per minute, and from 45 to 50 turkeys a minute. Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods was one of those companies.

“This modified system reduces redundancies between company and USDA inspection efforts and gives USDA’s staff more flexibility to focus on other things that verify the effectiveness of our food safety activities,” Tyson spokesman, Gary Mickelson said in the story.

“The continued outstanding performance of plants participating in the pilot program justifies the USDA’s confidence in announcing this proposed rule,” said a joint statement scheduled to be released Jan. 20 by the National Chicken Council and the National Turkey Federation.

The new oversight plan will require inspectors to focus on sanitation plans at plants, temperature controls and looking closely at points in the process where contamination may occur or be detected. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point programs would also become a requirement as part of the proposal.