FOR more than two years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has had a rule under review to modernize how the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) conducts poultry slaughter inspections.
Members of Congress remain mixed on the changes, while the Administration touts the cost and food safety benefits.
After the President's fiscal 2015 budget plan was released, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he felt confident that the proposed modernization would reduce costs while not sacrificing food safety.
The proposal would allow plants to increase their line speeds to 175 chicken carcasses per minute with a single inspector on the slaughter line. Currently, plant line speeds are limited to about 35 birds per minute per inspector. The rule would be voluntary, phased in and require more off-line inspections.
A pilot program conducted over 10 years to test the inspection plan showed an 11% decrease in the number of illnesses. Vilsack said the rule could prevent 5,200 illnesses per year.
Vilsack noted that in reviewing data from the 25 plants that participated in the pilot program, FSIS professionals found an increase in compliance with safety standards, plus the same or fewer product safety and worker safety issues.
Nonetheless, during a House appropriations hearing, Vilsack came under fire from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) on the proposed rule. She said if USDA were to implement the proposed poultry processing rule, it would have serious detrimental effects on both food and worker safety.
DeLauro pointed out that the Government Accountability Office has twice found that the data from the hazard analysis and critical control points program, on which the proposed rule is based, had too many limitations to ascertain food safety benefits.
She also raised concerns over worker safety, questioning Vilsack why it would be beneficial to have a system where companies are allowed to put their own inspectors on the line, effectively giving them oversight responsibilities for themselves.
DeLauro joined 67 other House colleagues, predominantly Democrats, on a letter March 17 urging the agency to suspend all action on the rule until the impact of concerns regarding public health, food safety, worker safety, animal welfare and Poultry Products Inspection Act compliance had been addressed.
Still, the rule has found support in both chambers. In December, 13 senators wrote to Vilsack in favor of the rule, and several representatives sent a similar letter to USDA in November that was signed by House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) and ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson (D., Minn.).
DeLauro and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D., N.Y.) also sent a letter to FSIS asking the agency to delay its proposed salmonella action plan because it is "inadequate to protect public health." Part of the plan includes the poultry inspection modernization rule to decrease the number of inspectors on the line and instead let poultry producers police themselves.
FSIS announced its salmonella action plan in December 2013. The plan was crafted in response to an ongoing outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella heidelberg, which has made 481 people sick and has a hospitalization rate of approximately 40% — twice the normal average for outbreaks of S. heidelberg.
Vilsack testified during the appropriations hearing that the FSIS plan outlines additional steps the agency intends to take to address salmonella, including developing performance standards for chicken parts based on FSIS baseline results.
"FSIS has seen declines in the total number of illnesses attributed to FSIS-regulated products," Vilsack testified, noting that from fiscal 2011 to 2013, "the total number of such illnesses fell 13%, which equates to about 64,000 illnesses over the two-year period."
In their letter, DeLauro and Slaughter wrote, "Substantial concerns have been raised about the proposal, and there is a conspicuous lack of evidence that the proposed changes will reduce foodborne pathogens. Considering the paucity of data and lack of comprehensive, external peer review, we are not convinced that this plan will either reduce salmonella infection or promote public health."