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USDA unveils proposed rule to modernize swine inspection

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USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on Friday (Jan. 19) unveiled a a new voluntary inspection system for market hog slaughter establishments, called the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS), that would revoke line speed limits for plants that chose to opt into the new system and allow them flexibility to reconfigure evisceration lines. 

While the pork industry says the highly-anticipated 198-page proposed rule will lead to more efficient production and will encourage innovation in food safety technologies, advocacy groups argue it will jeopardize both food and worker safety.

“FSIS is proposing this new inspection system to facilitate pathogen reduction in pork products; improve compliance with the HMSA [Humane Methods of Slaughter Act]; improve the effectiveness of market hog slaughter inspection; make better use of the agency’s resources; and remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles to innovation by revoking maximum line speeds and allowing establishments flexibility to reconfigure evisceration lines,” FSIS said.

The NSIS is based on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Inspection Models Project (HIMP) for hogs, which was field-tested at five U.S. pork packing plants for 15 years, and shifts some online safety inspection responsibilities from FSIS inspectors to plant staff.

This will free up FSIS inspectors to conduct more offline inspection activities that FSIS has determined are more effective in ensuring food safety, such as verifying compliance with sanitation, HACCP, and humane handling requirements, the agency said. At the same time, 100% FSIS carcass-by-carcass inspection would continue for market hog establishments that opt into the NSIS.

“There’s nothing here that does anything whatsoever to take any of the carcass-by-carcass inspection or any of the inspection of parts away from what we’re doing today,” Paul Kiecker, acting administrator for FSIS, told IEG Policy.

“The data that we’ve collected from the HIMP plant supports what we’re doing with the proposed rule,” Kiecker added. “We don’t see that there’s any reduction at all in the quality of the inspection, it makes better use of the FSIS personnel through reassigning their time to conduct humane handling and other food safety tasks, including sanitary dressing, rather than sorting out trimmable defects. It also allows the industry to be innovative and determine the best test method for them to control pathogenic bacteria in their slaughter process and that ready-to-cook pork products are produced that are safe for consumers.”

There will be a 60-day period for comment once the rule is published in the Federal Register.

Pathogen control to change

The proposed rule would allow market hog slaughter establishments that do not choose to operate under the NSIS to continue to operate under their existing inspection system, but would require additional pathogen sampling for all swine slaughter establishments, regardless of the inspection system under which they operate, or the age, size, or class of swine.

FSIS defines market hogs as “uniform, healthy, young animals that can be slaughtered and processed in this modernized system more efficiently and effectively with enhanced process control.”

Under the rule, all swine slaughter establishments would need to implement “appropriate measures” to prevent contamination throughout the entire production process in their HACCP plans, Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (Sanitation SOPs), or other prerequisite programs, according to FSIS.

Swine slaughter plants would need to take samples both prior to evisceration and at post-chill to demonstrate that they have process control, and FSIS will be providing a compliance guideline to help plants determine how frequently they must take samples, Kiecker said.

But the proposed changes would allow all swine slaughter establishments to develop sampling plans that are more tailored to their specific operations, “and thus be more effective in monitoring their specific process control,” FSIS said. These proposed changes also would ensure that before the start of slaughter operations, food-contact surfaces are sanitary and free of enteric pathogens.

“Underneath the rule, we will be requiring that all plants, not just the ones that go underneath the voluntary aspect, demonstrate process control by having sampling of the bacteria they decide they want to sample or gives them the best indication of process control prior to evisceration, and then follow it up by location at post-chill to demonstrate that they do have process control,” Kiecker said.

In addition, the new requirements would ensure that both USDA and the establishment have the documentation they need to verify the effectiveness of these measures on an ongoing basis, FSIS said.

Food safety concerns

But Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for Food & Water Watch (F&WW), said FSIS does not have the data to show that the NSIS will improve food safety. “They want to talk about food safety, we’re prepared to argue with them on that point,” he said.

“Right off the bat they say that this is going to provide at least an equivalent level of public protection, so they spend 200 pages and nearly 20 years of doing a pilot program that does not improve food safety,” Corbo told IEG Policy.

Corbo noted that FSIS stopped testing for Salmonella in 2011, “so they’re saying that this is going to be an equivalent level of public health protection when they don’t have data to really support it.”

In the next several weeks, F&WW plans to release an analysis the group has conducted of the five HIMP plants compared to five non-HIMP plants of comparable size by volume that shows that there are some key differences in the non-compliance reports that the inspectors have filed in the HIMP and non-HIMP plants, Corbo said. “There are higher incidences of regulatory violations in those HIMP plants compared to the non-HIMP plants,” he noted.

“This is just a belated Christmas gift to the industry so that they can increase their line speeds,” he added. “We’re going to argue against this proposed rule. A 60-day public comment period is not sufficient, and we’re also likely to ask for a public meeting on this.”

While FSIS is not currently doing any Salmonella testing on swine carcasses, the agency is conducting Salmonella testing on pork parts, “and we’re finding that those rates are very similar between the HIMP slaughter facilities and the traditional slaughter facilities,” Kiecker said.

Shifting inspection responsibilities

FSIS would assign fewer inspectors to online inspection for plants that opt into the NSIS, but the new inspection system would increase the number of offline USDA inspection tasks, and would place inspectors in areas of the production process where they can perform critical tasks that have direct impact on food safety, according to FSIS.

“If establishment personnel sorted and removed unfit animals before ante-mortem inspection and trimmed and identified defects on carcasses and parts before post-mortem inspection by FSIS inspectors, FSIS inspectors would be presented with healthier animals and carcasses that have fewer defects to inspect, which would allow inspectors to conduct a more efficient and effective inspection of each animal and each carcass,” the proposed rule states. “Such a system would allow FSIS inspectors to conduct a more efficient inspection. As a result, FSIS could assign fewer inspectors to online inspection.”

Overall, slightly fewer FSIS inspectors would be assigned to plants that chose to operate under the NSIS, and this number would be in line with the number of inspectors that FSIS currently has in the HIMP pilot plants, Kiecker said. In large slaughter facilities not operating under HIMP, there are currently six or seven FSIS inspectors, and under the NSIS there would be five or six FSIS inspectors, he noted.

Kiecker pointed to data from 2015 through 2017, which shows that FSIS inspectors spent 38% more time on verifying humane handling in the plants that were in the HIMP pilot compared to plants of the same size that were under traditional inspection systems.

“We also spent more time verifying slaughter HACCP tasks, including sanitary dressing, and then in the plants that were in the traditional, there was about a 2.25% E. coli STEC positive rate in the pork parts, and underneath the plants there were operating in the HIMP pilot we haven’t had any positives there at all,” Kiecker said.

Industry welcomes proposal

“We are very pleased that FSIS is moving with this rule,” Dan Kovich, director of science and technology and staff veterinarian at the National Pork Producer’s Council (NPPC), told IEG Policy. “We are still obviously going through it with a fine-toothed comb and making sure that we understand all the details and nuances but I think this is a great step forward both for FSIS and the industry.”

The rule will allow industry to be more innovative and more proactive in how they deal with food safety issues, “and certainly FSIS is right on target when they say it will allow their inspection staff to focus on more beneficial food safety activities … so it’s a big step forward in the right direction,” he said.

“The fact that this will allow for a more innovative approach is evidenced in things such as their call for comment on whether or not to allow visual-only inspection in certain circumstances, the flexibility that they’re giving to implement new testing protocols, looking specifically at the pre- and post-chill provisions and so forth, and so it’s a very robust, well-thought-out path forward for allowing industry to take a more proactive part in ensuring food safety, for them to better utilize their resources and to allow for more rapid adoption of new food safety interventions,” Kovich said.

The HIMP pilot program “yielded very positive results; expanding the program is another step forward in the industry’s ongoing focus on continuous improvement of food safety and cost efficiency,” said Ken Maschhoff, NPPC president.

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) also plans to thoroughly review the proposed rule and provide substantive comments on it, said Barry Carpenter, the group’s president and CEO.

“The proposed New Swine Slaughter Inspection System has been used as a pilot project in five pork plants for 15 years, and it has proven to be a strong inspection model,” Carpenter said. “Those five pilot plants have produced millions of pounds of safe pork.  We look forward to working with the agency as it develops a final rule that maintains a strong level of food safety in the most efficient manner.”

Worker safety issues

But advocates are concerned about the impact on worker safety. Debbie Berkowitz, senior fellow for worker safety and health at the National Employment Law Project, said “speeding up the number of hogs processed each hour in a plant will result in an already dangerous industry becoming even more dangerous, further jeopardizing the safety of all its workers.”

Berkowitz noted the rule was proposed despite a recent report by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General that evaluated the HIMP pilot initiative and found that in the 15 years since the program’s inception, the agency did not properly assess whether the new inspection process had measurably improved food safety at each swine HIMP plant.

“By removing all limits on line speeds, this proposal is yet another example of the Trump administration rigging the rules against workers and being perfectly willing to sacrifice workers’ health to benefit corporate interests,” Berkowitz said.

Workers in the meatpacking industry already face some of the highest worker injury rates in the nation – two times the average for all other industries, she noted.  “The only beneficiaries to this rule are the huge meatpacking companies like JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride – companies that already make millions in profits yet report among the highest numbers of severe worker injuries,” Berkowitz said.

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