FSIS Tells Ground Poultry Producers to Reassess Their Food Safety Plans

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a press release on Wednesday, December 5, 2012, announcing that companies producing raw ground chicken and turkey and similar products will be required to reassess their sanitation procedures and pathogen control plans over the next few months. Specifically, over the next 90 days, producers of raw ground chicken and turkey must conduct a thorough examination of its current Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) to confirm its ability to identify hazards and better prevent foodborne illness. After the 90 day period, FSIS inspection program personnel will begin verifying that establishments that manufacture raw ground turkey or chicken products have indeed reassessed their HACCP plans.

FSIS will be documenting whether establishments made any changes to their HACCP plans in response to the required reassessment and will later evaluate those changes. Later, the agency intends to publish guidance materials for the industry on best practices to reduce Salmonella in ground and comminuted (further processed by mechanical separation or deboning and chopped, flaked, minced or broken down) poultry.

In making this announcement, officials at FSIS are hoping to lower the prevalence of Salmonella contamination within these types of products. This attention to the ground poultry product industry with a focus on Salmonella comes as a response to recent outbreaks that have sickened hundreds across the country in the past few years. Just in the last two years there have been two major Salmonella outbreaks associated with ground poultry products that affected consumers nationwide.

In conducting these reassessments, FSIS is advising companies to look at, among other things, the following:

[E]stablishments should evaluate the adequacy of their sanitation procedures for processing equipment, including grinders, blenders, pipes, and other components and surfaces in contact with the product. Thus, Sanitation SOPs, other prerequisite programs, or HACCP plans should address procedures that ensure that all slaughter and further processing equipment, employee hands, tools, and clothing, and food contact surfaces are maintained in a sanitary manner to minimize the potential for cross contamination within and among lots of production. In addition, FSIS expects establishments to ensure that slaughter and dressing procedures are designed to prevent contamination to the maximum extent possible. Such procedures should, at a minimum, be designed to limit the exterior contamination of birds before exsanguination, as well as minimize digestive tract content spillage during dressing process.

Other FSIS recommendations include validating cooking instructions, examining lotting practices that minimize contact between lots, and requiring suppliers to show that they have used a Salmonella intervention step.

In FSIS’s notice, the agency also announced that it will be expanding the Salmonella verification sampling program to include other raw comminuted poultry products, in addition to ground product; it will be increasing the sample size for laboratory analysis from 25 grams to 325 grams to provide consistency as the Agency moves toward analyzing samples for Salmonella and Campylobacter; and it will be conducting sampling to determine the prevalence of Salmonella in raw comminuted poultry products.

Although these new procedures are intended for producers of ground or comminuted chicken and turkey products, FSIS is recommending that manufacturers of comminuted products derived from cattle, hogs, and sheep or comminuted poultry products derived from poultry other than chicken or turkeys also consider assessing whether their food safety systems present food safety vulnerabilities.

Stakeholders Debate Competition in the Poultry Industry at USDA/DOJ Workshop

It’s been a couple weeks since chicken farmers and processors met with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder in Normal, Alabama to discuss competition in the poultry industry. The May 21 USDA/DOJ workshop was the second such meeting conducted by the agencies in their quest to review enforcement policy relating to competition in agriculture. The meeting certainly highlighted the fact that there is debate among stakeholders in the industry about the state of competition, healthy or not.

 

Several sources noted with great interest that Christine Varney, DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division, asked one poultry farmer to call her directly if he experienced intimidation from poultry processors. The farmer declared that he was concerned to appear in public speaking about the way poultry “integrators” contract with poultry farmers like himself, who actually raise chicks into broilers. The recently published transcript of the May 21 proceedings also contains a farmer’s anonymous statement that was read to the government lawyers by a farmer willing to speak on his colleague’s behalf.  

 

 

From a policy perspective, there was more to the May 21 workshop than fear and loathing. For example, Assistant Attorney General Varney asked about the prevalence of farmer cooperatives in the industry – to which farmers on the panel replied that poultry farmers do not generally work together in cooperatives. Large poultry integrators, therefore, deal with poultry farmers on a one-on-one basis. And as one can read in the transcript, poultry farmers present in Normal, Alabama generally felt that the large poultry “integrators” have too much power over them. Outside the context of the workshop, Poultry farmers recently sued processors for their alleged unfair practices, without success. On May 10, a federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of claims against Tyson Foods, because the poultry farmers failed to allege that the challenged tactics actually harmed competition – i.e., reduced output or increased prices.

 

That brings us back to Assistant Attorney General Varney’s question about the prevalence of farmer cooperatives. Because the Capper-Volstead Act enables farmers to band together and jointly negotiate with the large buyers without violating Section One of the Sherman Act, farmers could theoretically deal with poultry processors through a collective or cooperative organization.  

 

Leading up to the meeting, large-scale poultry producers prepared themselves for criticism from farmers. The National Chicken Council released a report by an agricultural economist that describes healthy, vigorous competition in the poultry industry. And while chicken farmers at the workshop complained about the “power” of large poultry integrators, the National Chicken Council report cited a 2001 study that found farmers were generally happy to raise chickens for integrators. Interestingly, the report also reviewed government reports that show much higher levels of concentration among beef and pork processors relative to the poultry industry, and the report showed modest declines in retail prices for chicken products over the past 18 years.

 

What’s the takeaway from this round of the USDA/DOJ meetings? It’s hard to say. As a general rule, the antitrust enforcement agencies hate to argue with falling consumer prices. But the transcript reveals certain concerns about the power of poultry integrators over the farmers. Though the government’s listening tour clearly shows that government lawyers from USDA and DOJ are listening, it’s not clear yet what they are thinking. Watch for more clues at the June 25 workshop in Madison, Wisconsin, when the DOJ and USDA will be examining competition in the dairy industry.

Supreme Court Asked to Hear Preemption Case Involving Methylmercury; FDA Issues Draft Documents Regarding Consuming Commercial Fish

By Guest Blogger Bryan Anderson

The maker of Chicken of the Sea products has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant certiorari in a case we reported on involving preemption of state-law tort claims. In August 2008, the Third Circuit in Fellner v. Tri-Union Seafoods, LLC reversed the district court and held that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actions regarding methylmercury content in tuna did not preempt the plaintiff’s claims under the New Jersey Product Liability Act. Tri-Union Seafoods’ certiorari petition presents two questions for the Supreme Court’s consideration:

1. Whether state-law tort claims based upon failure to warn of the risks of methylmercury in tuna fish products are preempted by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act and regulatory actions of the FDA, including a written determination that state-law warning requirements concerning methylmercury in tuna products are preempted by federal law and denial of a petition to require such warnings; and

2. Whether a “presumption against preemption” applies in conflict preemption cases.

If the Court grants the petition and hears the case, it certainly will have implications concerning local and state labeling requirements vis-à-vis federal agency action. Stay tuned; we will update you on this case as the plaintiff/respondent submits her brief opposing the petition.

Also related to methylmercury, the FDA yesterday published a notice in the Federal Register announcing the availability of two draft documents assessing the benefits and risks of consuming commercial fish.

The first document attempts to quantify the impact of eating commercial fish on three health endpoints: (i) fetal neurodevelopment, (ii) risk of fatal coronary heart disease, and (iii) risk of fatal stroke. The FDA notes that “[e]ach of these health endpoints has been associated in the scientific literature both with adverse effects of methylmercury exposure (including through fish consumption) and beneficial effects of regular fish consumption.”

The second document provides an overview of published scientific literature regarding beneficial effects of fish consumption and Omega-3 fatty acids for neurodevelopmental and cardiovascular endpoints.