meat inspection

Risk-based inspection for meat and poultry

Report looks at the modernization of the meat and poultry oversight system in the U.S.

A recently released report that was developed by the Meat and Poultry Dialogue Group, and coordinated by the Meridian Institute, is titled “Recommendations to Modernize the Meat and Poultry Oversight System in the United States".

The 44 page report can be seen at https://docs.merid.org/SITECORE_DOCS/Meat%20and%20Poultry_final.pdf in its entirety.

The multi-player “Dialogue Group” contains the names of many big hitters in the meat and poultry industry and in the consumer advocacy arena, and was chaired by my good friends Sandra Eskin, director of food safety at the PEW Charitable Trusts, and Mike Robach, vice president for food safety at Cargill Foods.

I asked why no Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) leaders, past and/or present, were on the panel.

The response from one of the panel members was that they wanted to find something that would work for industry and consumers, and not necessarily be burdened by what might work for FSIS.

That works for me.

The report reaches from the farm in its pre-harvest section, to the consumers in its section on Public Health and Communication.

What I read with most interest was the call for inspection services for meat and poultry to transition from the old “poke and sniff’ system that is over 100 years old and become more risk based and public health oriented.

The plan calls for “the current approach to inspection…to be modernized to assure that the tasks performed are risk-based, public-health-focused and aligned with current technology.”

And adds that it should be “specific to the particular pathogen, species, product and consumer…”

That works for me also; in fact, from 2005-2007, I tried to get FSIS to do just that.

But there is history even further back than 2005.

In the mid-1980s, FSIS worked very hard to develop a risk-based inspection (RBI) system.

Unfortunately, a top administrator testified at a Congressional hearing that the new system would not only do away with daily inspection at the best performing plants, but would also result in a reduced inspector work force.

Small steps, Mr. Administrator, small steps.

In a statement that showed a level of stupidity that defies imagination, this person totally alienated the bargaining unit and the consumer groups.

We tried it again from 2005-2007 but those words from 1985 or so still resonated and it was tough sledding. Still, we made some progress.

We met regularly with folks from the consumer groups, the meat and poultry industry, food and meat scientists, the bargaining unit and some Congressional aides.

We plotted the relative risk of each food product we inspected—three times with similar results. We always agreed that ground beef was inherently riskier than cooked hams.

We also rated bacteria as to their threat to the public’s health, from a tummy ache to a death sentence.

We developed a method for determining the relative risk for each plant based on its safety record, including ranking those pesky Noncompliance Reports (NRs) as to their public health threat.

With a great deal of help from Dr. Joe Harris of the Southwest Meat Assn. we were able to reach a final agreement on a method to rank plants that was replicable and did not depend on the mood of an inspector on a day-to-day basis.

By combining the plant’s record with the product produced, our goal was to increase the amount of inspection time in the plant with the worst safety record making high risk product and decrease the amount of time in the plants with stellar food safety records producing low risk products.

We repeatedly stated the number of inspectors would not change, and no plant would bypass daily inspection.

Small steps.

Rosemary Mucklow, the then venerable CEO of the American Meat Institute, came to my rescue one day when I was challenged about the scientific basis for the proposed change in allocated inspection resources. 

In referencing the above stated plan, she said: “If you want to reduce the number of drunk drivers endangering the public’s lives, you do not position the State Patrol outside of churches on Sunday at noon; you put them outside of the bars on Saturday nights.”

Yep, that was our plan all right. Wish it was my quote.

But Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, D., Conn., added an amendment to a bill that had to pass that said FSIS could spend no further tax dollars developing a risk-based inspection system.

Dead in the water.

And then a few years later, she helped pass the Food Safety Modernization Act that mandates FDA to use risk-based inspection to allocate resources where they will do the most good.

What is the difference between FDA and FSIS that might mandate risk-based inspection for FDA and ban it for FSIS you might well ask?

Jobs. The bargaining unit. FSIS has one, FDA does not.

Unfortunately, for the Meat and Poultry Dialogue Group, none of that has changed.

Mike Robach attended, I think, every single one of our meetings back from 2005-2007. He helped me immensely when it came to understanding how the meat industry worked so hard to protect us from foodborne illnesses.

And Eskin was on the National Advisory Committee for Meat and Poultry Inspection at that time, so they both are familiar with the lay of the land.

Other members of the Group, like Barbara Kowalcyk, also attended our meetings and forced us ever so gently (or sometimes not) to keep the consumers first and foremost in our deliberations.

This effort to move to risk based is anything but new, and is anything but far overdue.

I hope the groundwork we laid back in the day can help the group move its agenda forward. If it does, then I will consider my time spent in D.C. to have been much more worthwhile than I once thought.  

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