A proposal by the USDA to phase out about 1,000 government inspection positions at poultry slaughter plants across the U.S. is a sensible move, said poultry experts interviewed by Food Quality.
Government inspectors tasked with examining chickens on the processing line for damage like bruises and broken wings will be replaced by plant staff.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said the inspectors, who have been tasked with examining chickens on the processing line for visible damage like bruises and broken wings, will be replaced by plant staff. The switch will save the government as much as $95 million in the first three years and speed poultry production, potentially saving companies and consumers nearly three times that amount.
The consumer group Food and Water Watch has protested the move, saying it gives industry too much control, but poultry experts said that pilot testing of this approach, known as the HACCP Inspection Models Project, indicates that the companies themselves are at least as skilled and thorough as government inspectors, if not more so. In 2000, a briefing paper presented to the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection pointed out that FSIS data show poultry from HIMP plants came closer to zero food safety defects than poultry from plants under traditional inspection.
In 2001, the independent Research Triangle Institute issued a report on the HIMP system. It concluded: “At this time, no convincing arguments were identified which indicate that adoption of the modified system, under regulatory supervision, would increase risk. More importantly, the authors find that there are several lines of evidence that strongly argue process improvements from the consumer perspective as related to adoption of the HIMP system.”
Visual inspection doesn’t reveal microbial contamination, so this part of the inspection process isn’t especially relevant to reducing foodborne illness, experts point out. And the FSIS will continue to conduct carcass-by-carcass inspection, as mandated by law. “Government inspectors will still be on site, and they can slow the process down if it’s shown that blemished birds are getting through,” said John Marcy, PhD, a professor and poultry processing specialist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Off-the-line inspection, which includes pathogen sampling and verifying the maintenance of sanitary conditions and control of food safety hazards at key points in the production process, is much more critical to preventing contamination, said Patricia Curtis, PhD, director and professor with the Auburn University Food Systems Initiative. “I think allowing FSIS inspectors to concentrate their efforts on the off-line inspection will provide a better food safety inspection system,” she said. “Changing the focus of FSIS inspectors’ role from visual inspection to offline inspection is not giving up food safety control; it is putting the inspector’s efforts where they can be the most effective.”