Recent news about (human and pet) food safety has provided Congress with the fodder it needs to move the food safety debate back to the front burner. Never mind that none of these events had anything to do with poultry or meat, or the way USDA inspects food; Congress has the hook it needs to renew a debate that has been relatively quiet for more than five years.

Already in March, House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., amended the Supplemental Appropriations Bill to restrict USDA's ability to move forward with risk-based inspection (RBI). If the DeLauro amendment becomes law, USDA could not implement RBI without going through notice-and-comment rulemaking.

The proposal may sound reasonable, but Congress may be establishing a precedent it someday will regret. As currently envisioned, RBI would not change any inspection regulation; it would not change the way poultry or meat is inspected. It simply is a proposed redeployment of inspectors in further processing plants so that inspection is intensified at those plants whose products pose the greatest regulatory challenge.

What happens if five months or five years from now a scientific study establishes beyond any doubt that a new allocation plan would significantly enhance food safety? If USDA is forced to codify RBI allocation into a rule, any subsequent re-allocation would be achieved only through notice-and-comment rulemaking. The groups supporting the DeLauro amendment could find themselves complaining in the future because USDA is not able to respond quickly enough to scientific breakthroughs in food safety.

This is not to say RBI, as currently envisioned by USDA, is perfect. The turkey industry ultimately may have serious concerns about the final USDA plan, but handicapping USDA's discretion on inspector allocation seems unwise.

USDA Food Safety Undersecretary Dr. Richard Raymond defended his plan in testimony before DeLauro's subcommittee, but early indications are that he changed few minds. NTF and other poultry and meat groups are working with Congress to see if there is an alternative way to address DeLauro's concerns and allow RBI to move forward.

The fight over RBI is only the beginning. DeLauro, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., all are pushing for major changes to the entire inspection system. DeLauro and Durbin last Congress called for creation of a single new food safety agency. NTF believes creating such a system is possible, but any effective legislation also would have to change the underlying statutes that govern all forms of food inspection. Reshuffling the bureaucracy with making science-based advances in our food safety laws makes little sense and actually could slow current initiatives that are yielding results.

A good example is the USDA's science-based focus on reducing salmonella in poultry and meat products. Government and industry have put significant resources to this effort, and we have seen a reduction in this naturally occurring pathogen on turkey products. USDA data indicates the incidence of salmonella on turkey carcasses has declined by 64 percent from the baseline set in 1997. The prevalence of salmonella in ground turkey decreased by nearly 60 percent. These declines show that current inspection system can yield impressive results in reducing food safety hazards.

Another indicator of progress in food safety comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which reports a decline in overall incidence of salmonella infections among the general public, along with other foodborne illnesses. The data shows a 9 percent decline in the number of salmonella infections (2005 compared with the 1996-98 baseline).

The turkey industry will continue to support food safety legislation and regulation based on practical, science-based policies that promote food safety and public health. The industry will also continue to research emerging technologies to reduce naturally occurring pathogens in turkey products. Finally, we will continue to educate consumers on properly handling and preparing turkey products. The turkey industry prides itself on producing safe, nutritious and delicious food for the American consumer and will take every action needed to support sound food safety efforts.