USDA Beefs Up Meat and Poultry Inspections
By Lisa A. Coleman
Washington, D.C.--The Department of Agriculture`s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a regulation in the fall of 1994 to help ensure safer meat and poultry by implementing a system that will focus on preventing contamination rather than detecting it once it has occurred.
A Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system will be required for each meat and poultry plant. The HACCP approach focuses on identifying hazards and assessing risks associated with each phase of food production, determining critical points where hazards can be controlled and establishing procedures to monitor these critical points. HACCP is generally considered the most effective approach available for preventing microbial contamination.
The USDA`s actions were spurred by a May 1994 U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report, "Food Safety: Risk-based inspections and microbial monitoring needed for meat and poultry," that determined that the FSIS "does not efficiently and effectively use its resources to protect the public from the most serious health risks associated with meat and poultry--microbial contamination."
The report was critical of the labor-intensive inspection methods used today that are based on a system devised around 1900. The current law requires federal inspectors to examine each carcass slaughtered, about 7 billion birds and livestock annually. Not only must inspectors examine the carcasses but they must also visit each of the 5,900 processing plants at least once during each operating shift. Inspectors use only their senses--smell, touch, sight--to make judgments about disease conditions, contamination and sanitation. Inspectors cannot determine if there is microbial contamination.
Microbes, such as deadly E. coli and salmonella, are recognized as today`s most serious health risk associated with meat and poultry, reports the GAO. FSIS does not routinely test for microbial contamination nor does it require industry to do so, reports the GAO, some meat and poultry processing plants have implemented their own microbial testing. In May 1993, the Secretary of Agriculture announced that each meat and poultry processing plant would be required to use a HACCP system. At that time, however, there were no plans to require microbial testing. The GAO has now recommended that the FSIS develop a mandatory HACCP system with specific requirements for microbial testing and guidelines for determining when microbial test results warrant action by the plant.
After several deaths in 1993 due to the foodborne pathogen E. coli 0157:H7, the FSIS made several improvements in its program and new legislation is being developed to allow USDA to require animal identification and traceback. Nationwide microbial studies have been launched including the Clean Meat Program, which requires all visible contamination to be removed as part of slaughter inspection procedures; and the Enhanced Raw Poultry Safety Program which will use new technologies in its meat and poultry system. In the past year, the USDA mandated safe handling instructions on every package of fresh and partially cooked meat and is also increasing awareness of proper sanitation and food handling practices among food preparers.
In the GAO report, plants that were conducting microbial testing made constructive changes to improve product safety and quality. These included changes to the design of facilities or equipment found to be harboring bacteria. For example, holes were cut in machines to provide better access for cleaning; grooves in floor drains were cut to facilitate flow and reduce drain water backup; scrapers, designed to dislodge excess fat, were removed from the conveyor belt because they spread bacteria across the entire belt.
Besides making changes in equipment, some plants have also changed their sanitation practices. Some plants now constantly change cleaning solutions, replace rather than clean conveyor belts or remove the belts for cleaning rather than cleaning them in place. Other changes include increased employee awareness of good hygiene practices and improved management of production processes.
To order a copy of the GAO report, contact: U.S. General Accounting Office, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, MD 20884-6015 or call (202) 512-6000 or fax (301) 258-4066. The first copy of a GAO report is free, additional copies are $2 each. n