Later this year, the poultry processing industry will achieve some of its long-sought goals: getting federal inspectors all but off its first-level processing lines and running the lines at higher speeds, which should translate into greater productivity and profit. In exchange, companies will have to conduct microbiological testing programs for raw chickens and turkeys and share the data with the federal government. The industry is welcoming the new regime.

“As new research expands our ability to respond to food-safety issues, it is essential that we embrace new inspection approaches that keep pace with that knowledge,” American Meat Institute Executive Vice President James Hodges said. “We commend USDA for embracing science and we look forward to working with them as they finalize the rule and implement this new approach.”

Dubbed the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS), the program was announced by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service in January and was followed by a 90-day comment period. USDA will take stock of the comments and make any revisions it feels necessary before publishing the program in final form.

“The modernization plan will protect public health, improve the efficiency of poultry inspections in the US and reduce spending,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. “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.”
Ready to roll

When implemented, it will allow companies to run the evisceration line at a maximum of 175 birds per minute for young chickens and 55 for young turkeys. Plant employees, instead of federal inspectors, will take off carcasses that show signs of disease or imperfections. Birds with merely cosmetic problems can be reprocessed and sent down the line. Just before the birds plunge into the chiller, a federal inspector will eyeball the carcasses, looking for any bad ones that got by the plant sorters. Other FSIS inspectors will work off the line, checking on the plant’s compliance with its hazard analysis and sanitation plans.

“We’ll spend our time and our resources on the critical food-safety tasks,” Vilsack said. “We believe this will result in a more efficient and more effective process and certainly a more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars.”

Many plants will have to rip out their existing evisceration lines and replace them with new equipment if they want to achieve the new maximum speeds, according to Dr. Scott Russell, professor of poultry processing at the Univ. of Georgia. “It isn’t just a matter of cranking up the line speed,” he says. “They will need to install new systems.”

The plants will be required to test for Salmonella, Campylobacter and generic E. coli or other indicator organisms and share the results with FSIS, giving the government a huge new source of data.

“Instead of following a prescribed microbiological testing program, each establishment would be responsible for developing and implementing its own microbiological sampling plan, which would be required to include carcass sampling at pre-chill and post-chill,” USDA said in its official notice.

While participation by plants in the new program is technically voluntary, in fact companies have virtually no choice. If they don’t participate in the new system, they will have to go back to the “traditional” system, with a line speed of only 70 birds per minute. That’s well below the speeds most are using now. Consequently, the agency expects that 219 chicken and turkey plants, accounting for 99.9 percent of nationwide production, will participate in the new system. Traditional inspection will be available for plants that still eviscerate by hand, which are typically very small operations oriented to local or niche markets. But all plants with automated evisceration are expected to be under the new system.

NPIS is intended to update a federal poultry-inspection system that hasn’t changed very much since it was launched in the 1950’s. Inspection has been “organoleptic,” requiring the inspector to see, touch or even smell the carcasses for signs of avian disease and for imperfections such as broken bones, bruises and contamination by fecal or digestive material.

USDA approved faster lines to help companies improve productivity, but federal inspection stations were still in the middle of the process. In 1998, USDA launched a pilot program in 20 chicken and five turkey plants allowing company employees to take over “sorting” to get rid of the problem birds or clean them up. The union representing federal inspectors objected, since fewer federal employees would be needed. Some activist groups accused USDA of compromising food safety. The agency conducted elaborate studies to show that the pilot plants actually had better results than plants under traditional or modified inspection.

“We’ve been able to establish that this will result in a safer food supply,” Vilsack said. “We actually have real-world experience with this.”