The U.S. would boost monitoring of poultry processors’ sanitary practices and contamination controls instead of eyeballing each bird for scabs and sores under a plan that would save companies $250 million a year.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the proposal, to be presented today, may prevent 5,200 foodborne illnesses a year by modernizing the century-old system and making it more efficient. The effort will emphasize safety, rather than the visual imperfections of chickens and turkeys that may harm sales.
“It’s obviously about safer food and fewer foodborne illnesses,” Vilsack said in an interview. “It’s also about reducing the cost of production in an effective way without redundancy or compromising safety.”
The U.S. would save as much as $40 million a year within two or three years, in part through the elimination of government inspection jobs, Vilsack said. Last week, the secretary announced a reorganization of his agency that would lower spending by about $150 million a year, or 1 percent of the department’s budget. The public will have 90 days to comment on the proposal.
The USDA would continue to inspect poultry carcasses at the end of the production line before they are chilled and will be on site at all times, Vilsack said. Slaughter operators have the option of requesting the U.S. continue visual inspections for blemishes, according to the proposed regulation.
“This is historic,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, in an interview. “If you really want to improve our poultry system, this is what you would do. It’s all about improving food safety. You can’t see salmonella.”
The value of production from broilers, eggs and turkeys, and the sale of chickens was $34.7 billion in 2010, according to the U.S. Poultry and Eggs Association website.
The USDA’s proposal would bring efficiencies to the inspection system, said Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods Inc., in an e-mail. Tyson, based in Springdale, Arkansas, and the largest U.S. chicken producer by volume, participated in the pilot program testing the new inspection rules.
“This modified system reduces redundancies between company and USDA inspection efforts and gives USDA’s staff more flexibility to focus on other things that verify the effectiveness of our food safety activities,” said Mickelson, adding that Tyson hasn’t seen the proposed regulation.
U.S. efforts to inspect meat and poultry need to be improved and driven by public health rather than budgetary concerns, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington consumer advocacy group, in an e-mail.
“While the changes USDA proposes would save money, it is critically important that they reduce the unacceptably high levels of salmonella and campylobacter in chicken and turkey,” Jacobson said.
The pilot program with 25 poultry processors conducted over more than a decade found no increased risk of injuries to workers from the faster production line and showed the effort to be successful, said Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety at the USDA, in an interview.
“The continued outstanding performance of plants participating in the pilot program justifies the USDA’s confidence in announcing this proposed rule,” according to joint statement to be released today by the National Chicken Council and the National Turkey Federation, both in Washington.
The change would speed up the inspection timeline to 175 chickens per minute from 140, and to 50 turkeys from 45 a minute.
The agency expects to save $15 million in the first year of implementation, mainly through lower labor costs, Vilsack said. Five hundred to 800 inspector positions along with 140 supervisory jobs will be eliminated in large part through attrition and retirement, he said.
About 1,500 U.S. inspectors will receive training, as well as position and pay upgrades, to handle the other oversight activities, including monitoring companies’ sanitization plans, temperature controls and surveying points in the process where contamination may occur or be detected.
Devoting resources to inspection activities off the assembly line reflects a growing body of science on how foodborne illness is best prevented, said J. Glenn Morris Jr., director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
“You can’t see or feel a bad bacteria on a bad chicken,” said Morris in an interview. “That’s not the way you detect major problems. Looking at chickens does not solve your food safety problems.”
Inspectors began visually inspecting poultry for physical defects in 1906, before it was possible to detect microbial contamination that can’t be seen and poses a hazard, he said.
The U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, which represents producers and processors and is based in Tucker, Georgia, declined to comment until the proposal is released today, said Gwen Venable, a spokeswoman, in an interview.
Poultry slaughter operations would also have to develop written procedures to prevent contamination and a program to control sanitation, as well as sampling and analysis. Such guidelines are currently voluntary.