Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a press release indicating that the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was proposing a new rule to modernize young chicken and turkey slaughter inspection.

Specifically, the rule intends to expand the use of the flexible, more efficient, fully integrated meat and poultry inspection system originally developed by FSIS in the late 1990s known as the HACCP Based Inspection Models Project, or HIMP. According to Alfred Almanza, Administrator of USDA’s FSIS, there have been 20 broiler plants under a HIMP pilot program since 1999. He explained that this 13-year-old study was undertaken to determine how best to modernize poultry inspection on a large scale. By expanding HIMP, FSIS aims to focus its inspection resources on the areas of the poultry production system that pose the greatest risk to food safety: the unseen threat of Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Some of the key elements of that new system include:

(1) Requiring establishment personnel to conduct carcass sorting activities before FSIS conducts online carcass inspection so that only carcasses that the establishment deems likely to pass inspection are presented to the carcass inspector; (2) reducing the number of online FSIS carcass inspectors to one per line; and (3) permitting faster line speeds than are permitted under the current inspection systems it replaces.

In the USDA’s January news release, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack supported implementation of the new rule by stating that “[t]he modernization plan will protect public health, improve the efficiency of poultry inspections in the U.S., and reduce spending.” He added, “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. By revising current procedures and removing outdated regulatory requirements that do not help combat foodborne illness, the result will be a more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars.” Significantly, FSIS representatives pointed out that the new rule would prevent 5,200 foodborne illnesses annually, would save taxpayers approximately $90 million over three years, and save the poultry industry more than $250 million annually.

Yet, despite noting the positive impact that the proposed expansion of the HIMP poultry inspection system would have on both food safety and taxpayers’ wallets, the USDA received a great deal of criticism from consumers, food safety advocacy groups, the media, and FSIS inspectors themselves.

In particular, critics argued that the HIMP model relinquishes most of the physical poultry inspection duties to the companies that produce the birds for ultimate retail sale. Company employees, rather than FSIS inspectors, will be tasked with sorting defective chickens and examining other quality assurance issues. Inspectors will be responsible for reviewing each bird for fecal contamination. Inevitably, the reduced role of the FSIS inspector will eventually result in the elimination of between 800 and 1,000 FSIS inspectors jobs.

In addition, many are concerned that, under the new rule, poultry plants will be allowed to speed up their lines from an inspection rate of 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute. Some inspectors urge that raising the line speed would result in an increased number of unsafe and unwholesome poultry products winding up on the consumer’s dinner table.

However, both Almanza and Undersecretary for Food Safety at USDA Elisabeth Hagen maintain that the proposed rule is a step in the right direction for protecting public health. In response to the argument that the new rules places too much inspection authority in the hands of the poultry company, Almanza explained:  

Right now, we focus on visual inspections of birds, carcass by carcass, and we look for bumps and blemishes. Do these blemishes put Americans’ health at risk? No. But the unseen threats, salmonella and campylobacter, do. Today, we inspect poultry much the same way as we have since the Eisenhower administration, evaluating the quality of each carcass and doing industry’s quality assurance work for them. Once upon a time, there was a good explanation for this: when FSIS first started inspecting poultry, quality assurance was thought to be the best way of keeping the public safe and holding industry accountable. But now that our scientific knowledge has advanced and helped us better identify true food safety threats, we cannot do the same thing we’ve been doing since the 1950s.

Further, Almanza said that the HIMP facilities have been permitted to use a line speed of 175 birds per minute since 1999. “In other words, we have more than a decade of experience slaughter running at 175 bpm, the proposed maximum line speed in the rule,” he added.

Hagen underscored that, even with those increased line speeds, when it comes to contamination, the HIMP pilot plants have performed far better than non-HIMP plants. Data collected from the HIMP plants over the last several years support FSIS’ proposition to expand the HIMP program to additional poultry slaughter facilities. 

Due to the negative response to the proposed rule, though, Undersecretary Hagen announced that the rule will remain open for public comment until April 26, 2012. Comments may be submitted electronically by visiting http://www.regulations.gov or by mailing them to Docket Clerk, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), FSIS, Docket Clerk, Patriots Plaza 3, 355 E. Street SW., 8-163A, Mailstop 3782, Washington, DC 20250-3700.