July 16, 2018

CFA Analyzes USDA Meat and Poultry Inspection Program

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) has released an in-depth analysis of the USDA’s primary meat and poultry food safety regulation program. That program was implemented after the 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to undercooked burgers at Jack in the Box restaurants.

usdaartThe report, called “The Promise and Problems of HACCP: A Review of USDA’s Approach to Meat and Poultry Safety” looks at the history of the program and identifies gaps. Two examples are: plants fail to develop effective food safety plans, and the USDA fails to identify problems with those plans; and plants are repeatedly cited for recurring violations with very little consequences.

CFA is recommending that the government develop better approaches to reviewing food safety plans. Plants should be required to prevent specific pathogens. The USDA should also establish clear procedures to address recurring violations and have a plan to take enforcement action when needed.

USDA’s HACCP regulations were issued in 1996.¬†Government inspectors do not look at every single piece of meat sold to consumers; they verify the effectiveness of corporation food safety systems. Performance standards are set for reducing pathogens.

One of the problems with this approach is that contamination can occur at many points along the food supply chain. HACCP regulation has “played some role” in the decline in foodborne illness from 1996 to 2001, but there has been little progress in reducing illnesses since then.

Some of the elements that USDA originally proposed in HACCP systems, such as requiring all slaughter establishments use antimicrobial treatment on carcasses and that specific time/temperature requirements for cooling carcasses and parts were eliminated. The industry fought those requirements, and said each establishment should have full control over its HACCP program with little government oversight.

After the HACCP rule was implemented, a beef processor sued, saying that the government did not have the power to suspend operations at plants that violate food safety standards. Supreme Beef won its case, which has hindered the agency’s regulatory program ever since. Consumers advocates want legislation to let FSIS have explicit authority to enforce performance standards.

E. coli O157:H7 and six other shiga-toxin production E. coli bacteria (STEC) have bene declared as adulterants in recent years. But Salmonella is not considered an adulterant until there is enough bacteria in a product to make someone sick. There is a “zero tolerance” policy on ready to eat products contaminated with Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli, but not on foods that are cooked by the consumer.

USDA introduced HIMP a few years ago, which has been controversial. The program, called HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project, is criticized because inspection line speeds are increased, and government inspectors are being replaced by employees. FSIS’ assessment of the pilot HIMP program in pork plants found good performance, but independent assessments have found problems.

In the end, CFA recommends that a better mechanism to ensure HACCP rigor be developed, and plants should be required to identify specific pathogens as hazards. Clear procedures for recurring violations should be set, and performance standards should be regularly updated. Congress should give USDA authority to enforce those standards, and FSIS sampling programs should be improved.

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