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EXCLUSIVE: Ante-mortem inspection by hog plant staff could lead to massive animal disease outbreak, vets warn

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USDA’s new hog inspection proposal could increase the threat of a massive animal disease outbreak by lessening the role of federal inspectors in sorting diseased animals during ante-mortem checks, some veterinarians warn.

The current system has Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors moving animals that appear sick prior to slaughter and federal veterinarians checking them for diseases, but plant staff would take over this responsibility under the proposed New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) and that is raising concerns.

There is no substitute for veterinary expertise in disease surveillance, William James, former chief veterinarian for FSIS, told IEG Policy.

During his 28-year career at FSIS, James directed ante-mortem and post-mortem inspection of livestock and poultry, implemented pathogen and residue sampling and had executive oversight of import and export issues for FSIS, among other duties. James now serves as chief consultant at William James & Associates, where he assists poultry and meat companies with domestic and international issues of regulatory compliance, humane handling, supply chain security, equivalence, and other areas of food safety and international trade.

“I have long been of the opinion that ante-mortem inspection should be done by veterinarians in FSIS; however, FSIS has permitted sorting of animals ante-mortem by inspectors who work for FSIS for many years, and FSIS veterinarians then just look at animals that have been removed as identified by the inspectors,” James said.

Under the traditional hog slaughter inspection system, FSIS inspectors move animals that appear sick into suspect pens, and the suspects are then looked at by FSIS veterinarians, James said. “That is not the best way to do it, but it is one way the agency copes with the shortage of veterinarians in the agency, and so that has occurred for a long time.”

With the proposed NSIS, FSIS inspectors will no longer be doing the first sorting, they’ll be doing the second sorting, and FSIS veterinarians will then come out and do essentially a third review of these animals, James said. Plant staff would also be able to do this first sorting at any time of day or night, without anyone from FSIS present under the NSIS, and the agency is not asking to see any of these culled animals, he said.

“I am concerned that removes veterinarians too far from these sick animals, and my greatest concern is with foreign animal diseases being introduced into the country that will miss observation by a skilled veterinarian because now there have been two levels of sorting that occur before the vet ever sees them,” James said.

Currently, FSIS veterinarians are required to report any suspect animals culled during ante-mortem inspection to USDA’s APHIS and the appropriate state health authority, and it’s not clear who would report sick animals that have not been viewed by an FSIS veterinarian to the appropriate health authority under the NSIS, he said.

But Dan Kovich, a veterinarian and assistant director of science and technology at the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), said plants have just as much incentive to find and report sick animals as FSIS inspectors and veterinarians.

“It really is not in anyone’s interest in the industry to fail to report or catch a foreign animal disease,” Kovich told IEG Policy. “The plants are just as aware of that as producers, veterinarians and federal inspection staff are. Everyone understands the importance of catching these things early.”

The NSIS rule includes mechanisms, processes and requirements to ensure that animal diseases will be caught and reported, he said.

 “Generally at NPPC we do firmly agree that ante-mortem inspection at slaughter is a key component of our animal health surveillance system in this country, and we certainly don’t want that to change,” Kovich said. “I think, though, there is a misperception out there that with this New Swine Inspection System that FSIS inspection staff is not going to be out in lairage, that they’re not going to be out at the barns, that they’re not going to be looking at animals, and that’s incorrect.”

“I think if anything, under NSIS, FSIS inspectors [will be more present] on the live side, doing humane handling checks, etc.,” Kovich continued. “So they’re going to be out there, they’re going to be seeing what’s going on. And everything remains subject to inspection. Just because the plant staff is doing more pre-sorting doesn’t mean FSIS won’t be out there verifying that.”

“I am concerned that removes veterinarians too far from these sick animals, and my greatest concern is with foreign animal diseases being introduced into the country that will miss observation by a skilled veterinarian because now there have been two levels of sorting that occur before the vet ever sees them.” -- William James, former chief veterinarian for FSIS

Animal disease outbreak would devastate U.S. economy

If hogs with a suspected foreign animal disease like Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) are not reported quickly to the appropriate U.S. health authorities, it could devastate the U.S. economy, James said.

An outbreak of FMD would immediately close all export markets to U.S. meat, according to NPPC. Iowa State University economists estimate the cumulative impact of an outbreak on the beef and pork sectors over a 10-year period would be more than $128 billion.

While FMD has not been found in the U.S. since 1929, many in the livestock industry say the question of whether another FMD outbreak will occur in the United States is a question of “when, not if.”

The FMD outbreak that occurred in England in 2001 had tremendous consequences for the country, but spread of the disease was minimized because a veterinarian performing ante-mortem inspection at a slaughter plant detected the disease, James noted.

Without that identification, it could have been days to weeks before the farm with the FMD was identified, and the disaster that arose from the presence of FMD in the UK “would have been multiplied exponentially,” James said.

There is a disease affecting U.S. swine that mimics the symptoms of FMD, causing the same types of blisters around their mouths and hooves, he noted.

“And so every year we hold our breath while those animals are reported to APHIS,” James said. While these samples so far have always come back as negative for FMD, “there’s a balance point between efficiency and effectiveness, and I believe we’ve pushed too far in this case toward efficiency and are not looking closely enough at effectiveness,” James said.

Plant staff could be trained for ante-mortem inspection

But others believe that FSIS veterinarians don’t necessarily need to conduct ante-mortem inspections themselves, and that plant staff could be properly trained to take on this responsibility.

“By very definition, the things that we can catch ante-mortem are things that are grossly visible to the eye, and I think staff can be trained well and relatively quickly to catch those obvious visual signs of illness or disease,” NPPC’s Kovich said.

“By very definition, the things that we can catch ante-mortem are things that are grossly visible to the eye, and I think staff can be trained well and relatively quickly to catch those obvious visual signs of illness or disease” -- Dan Kovich, assistant director of science and technology at the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC)

“We, all throughout the industry, understand the importance of catching these things early, and I think the plants are really going to make the investment in training their people to make sure that this does not become an issue,” he added.

Under the NSIS, plants will be required to notify FSIS personnel if they see any indications of a foreign animal disease or any other sign of an animal health threat, Kovich said.

“We have seen that system does work in terms of that level of operation because at any given time, when the animals are being moved, unloaded, sorted, that stuff can all occur without FSIS inspection,” he said. “The barn is being filled overnight, etc., and we do have mechanisms that ensure people are watching for these things and reporting them.”

The type of training plant staff receive is important, Jack Shere, chief veterinary officer at APHIS, said Feb. 23 at USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum. “I’ve seen the training that some of the FSIS folks do and the lay people are getting,” he said. “I have confidence that if they turn this over to them that it will be adequate.”

“Animal diseases that would be detected during ante-mortem inspections is something you can train people to see,” Shere said. “You don’t have to be a veterinarian to see your dog’s sick in the morning. If they’re properly educated in clinical signs to look for, things like different lesions, and something that’s other than a transport issue, I think that can be done.”

While critics of the NSIS say the high employee turnover at slaughter plants would make it difficult to ensure that plant staff maintain adequate training to conduct ante-mortem inspection properly, Shere said plants could address this by selecting the right employees to perform this task. “FSIS should take [this] very seriously and make sure that training does occur,” he said.

But Shere also said that post-mortem inspection would likely catch any diseased animals before they go into food production. 

“A lot of sick animals never make it to FSIS, they never make it to inspection,” Shere said. “If we detect them on the farm, they never get shipped. For example, when we had high-path avian influenza, we put all those animals down. They get buried or composted.”

But James said not all hogs that come to slaughter plants working under the NSIS are consistently looked at by trained veterinarians before they arrive there, “and will not have seen a veterinarian under this new system during the first sort, and so there are animals that would escape attention and do damage to the safety net we have in this country for the importation of foreign animal diseases.”

Food safety advocates have raised concerns that the NSIS rule leaves it up to companies how they should conduct training for ante-mortem inspections, but Shere said maintaining their brand functions as a powerful incentive for companies to ensure they do not allow sick animals to proceed to slaughter. Certain countries also will not accept exports from companies that slaughter diseased animals, he noted.

Greg Ibach, under secretary for USDA’s Marketing and Regulatory Programs, pointed to examples in the restaurant industry of “chains that have let the public down and the impact that has had on their business. People in the livestock industry are taking note of that and they understand that food safety aspect is tantamount to their future business,” he said at the Feb. 23 Agricultural Outlook meeting. “In some ways they might have a greater interest in being extra vigilant than a government inspector might.”

Another inspection role changed in proposal

Concerns have also been raised that allowing plant staff to trim carcasses prior to FSIS post-mortem inspection could remove critical lesions necessary for FSIS to pass or reject a carcass for human consumption or to order additional pathology or residue tests.

But James said he was not concerned about the post-mortem inspection changes in the NSIS rule because FSIS inspectors and veterinarians would still be present at the plant offline at all hours post-mortem sorting is occurring to observe the sorting process, as well as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and sanitation.

“I am all for FSIS performing its functions to protect public health in the most efficient manner possible,” James said. “I believe this rule comes close to achieving this, but I think it goes a little too far on the efficiency side because of what it’s doing at ante-mortem, and so I would leave the post-mortem inspection part of the rule as is, but I would also leave the ante-mortem inspection the way it currently is [under the traditional inspection system] and not change it in this rule.”

Veterinarians are not usually doing trimming on the line anyway, NPPC’s Kovich said. FSIS inspectors are currently trained to recognize problems during trimming that must be reported to the veterinarian, but plant staff could receive this same training, he said.

“Nothing has changed in terms of what would need to be trimmed, what needs to come off, what needs to … go out for disposition by a veterinarian,” he said. “Anything that needs to be trimmed, it’s not in the plant’s best interest to fail to report it. If it’s an isolated lesion and they’re not putting the carcass off for veterinary inspection, that would have been done by the FSIS inspector just as much. They’re going to want an FSIS veterinarian to make the final disposition on an animal that’s going to be condemned because it does have value and they’re going to want that level or verification.”




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