USDA Changes Up The Way It’s Been Inspecting Poultry Plants For The Last 50 Years

In an effort to stem the tide of foodborne illnesses hitting the country every year via chicken and turkey, the Obama administration has announced new rules for poultry plants, revamping the rules its used for inspections for the first time since 1957. But critics are crying foul, calling the government out for failing to address the role antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria plays in the poultry industry.

The United States Department of Agriculture says the aptly named New Poultry Inspection System will prevent up to 5,000 illnesses from things like Salmonella and Campylobacter. Though the NPIS cuts down on the total number of inspectors, it says it positions food safety workers throughout the plants in a smarter way, stressing safety over food quality.

WHAT THE USDA SAYS ABOUT NPIS
“The United States has been relying on a poultry inspection model that dates back to 1957, while rates of foodborne illness due to Salmonella and Campylobacter remain stubbornly high,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “The system we are announcing today imposes stricter requirements on the poultry industry and places our trained inspectors where they can better ensure food is being processed safely. These improvements make use of sound science to modernize food safety procedures and prevent thousands of illnesses each year.”

The Food Safety and Inspection service will require companies to focus on preventing contamination, instead of trying to deal with it after it already occurs.

All poultry plants will have to conduct their own microbiological testing at two different points in the production process to ensure they’re controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter. The FSIS will also continue its own testing.

In addition, the optional NPIS will mean companies must sort their poultry themselves to look for quality defects before the poultry ever gets to FSIS inspectors.

That way, the inspectors can “focus less on routine quality assurance tasks that have little relationship to preventing pathogens like Salmonella and instead focus more on strategies that are proven to strengthen food safety,” the press release explains.

WHAT CRITICS SAY ABOUT NPIS
But this new system has some very vocal critics, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is calling out the USDA for not declaring dangerous strains of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella as adulterants, as it asked the department to do in a regulatory petition dating back three years.

That, along with the fact the redraft of its proposal for overhauling inspections has been “roundly criticized by advocates in the labor, animal welfare, and food safety movements,” CSPI says in a statement.

“USDA’s failure to act on antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella in the meat supply ignores vital information about the public health risk posed by these pathogens,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “Despite numerous examples of outbreaks linked to resistant pathogens, USDA leaves consumers vulnerable to illnesses that carry a much greater risk of hard-to-treat infections leading to hospitalization.”

In addition, notes the CSPI, major health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and a Presidential scientific advisory panel have warned that antibiotic resistance is reaching “epidemic proportions.”

“This widespread overuse of essential medicines allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to invade our food supply and the water and environment near where the animals and poultry are raised,” DeWaal said.

As for that cut in the number of FSIS inspectors who are ostensibly going to be distributed in a “smarter” way, CSPI says this new model will privatize inspections, which won’t benefit consumers who are in danger of getting foodborne illnesses.

“In its desire to save some nine million dollars next year, the USDA missed the boat on designing a scientific approach to modernizing poultry inspection,” DeWaal said. “With more than 600 people sick from the Foster Farms outbreak alone, this is hardly the time to reduce USDA’s oversight of the poultry industry.”

The CDC puts the numbers for salmonella linked illnesses at 1.2 million per year, resulting in 450 deaths, reports the Associated Press.

Consumers in the know might be aware of this year’s Foster Farms recall after 634 salmonella-related illnesses in 29 states and Puerto Rico were linked to their products over the span of a year.

And there was the Cargill recall of 2011, when the company recalled more than 36 million pounds of ground turkey after a salmonella outbreak hit 136 people and killed one.

USDA Announces Additional Food Safety Requirements, New Inspection System for Poultry Products [USDA.gov]
USDA overhauls 50 year-old poultry inspections [Associated Press]