The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has sent its proposed rule to modernize the U.S. poultry inspection system to the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review.
OIRA's review of the rule is the last step before the rule becomes final and published in the Federal Register. The rule was proposed in January 27, 2012, and the comment period closed May 29, 2012.
About the modernized poultry inspection system
Under the proposed rule, USDA remains in its oversight role and USDA inspectors will still be in every poultry plant, looking at each chicken to ensure the safety of chicken products and providing them with the USDA seal of approval for wholesomeness.
The voluntary change would allow trained plant employees to check carcasses for defects and perform other quality-assurance tasks not related to food safety. That would free up some federal inspectors to focus more on food safety-related tasks, such as oversight and verification, microbiological testing for pathogens like Salmonella, sanitation standards and antimicrobial controls in the plant.
This system has been in place as a pilot in 20 chicken plants for the past 15 years, and has proven successful at improving food safety and protecting workers.
The new system, as proposed, would be voluntary for chicken processors.
At facilities that process chickens for meat, FSIS is the public health agency within USDA that is responsible for inspecting every chicken. The U.S. meat and poultry inspection system complements efforts by chicken processors to ensure that the nation's supply of poultry products is safe, wholesome and correctly labeled and packaged.
In its risk assessment accompanying the proposed rule, FSIS estimated that if implemented, this modernized system would prevent more than 5,200 foodborne illnesses every year.
National Turkey Federation responds
While the most recent draft of the poultry inspection modernization rule is not yet available for public release and has not been seen by the National Turkey Federation (NTF), the group is pleased that the rule has been sent to the OMB. NTF had previously submitted comments in support of earlier drafts of the proposed rule.
“That draft detailed a modern, sensible approach that will allow food safety inspectors to focus more closely on public health. Further, it described a revamped inspection system that would allow federal inspectors to shift to prevention-oriented inspection systems and redeploy resources in a manner that better protects the public from foodborne diseases,” said NTF President Joel Brandenberger.
“The turkey industry strives to ensure that consumers continue to enjoy turkey products with full confidence in its safety. These actions, together with scientifically-based regulatory actions will affect positive results in the regulated poultry establishments. NTF urges the [OMB] to provide a high priority review for this important regulation.”
National Chicken Council applauds USDA
"I commend USDA for taking the next step in an effort to modernize the way the agency inspects chicken," said National Chicken Council (NCC) President Mike Brown. "In an effort to continue our progress towards reducing foodborne illnesses, we believe, along with food safety experts, that the poultry inspection system should be modernized and transitioned to a model that is more science and risk-based. Not only will this system build on our food safety progress, if fully implemented, it will create jobs.
"We look forward to reviewing the final rule in its entirety once it is published in the Federal Register. After a successful 15-year pilot program, I urge OIRA to perform an expeditious review."
NCC releases website to educate about traditional, modernized poultry inspection
NCC has launched a new, informative Chicken Inspection Facts website designed for consumers and the media to help them better understand both the traditional and modernized inspection processes. The website contains: video of a chicken processing line; video testimonials from food safety, veterinary and poultry processing experts; a Myths & Facts section; a timeline; and several infographics and diagrams.
"In an attempt to save a few federal union jobs that have proven unnecessary over the past 15 years, the inspectors union and their allies have spread many misconceptions about this inspection system and chicken processing in general," Brown said. "We hope this new website will serve as both an educational tool and resource. After learning the facts, I'm sure taxpayers want their hard earned tax dollars going towards federal inspectors performing tasks like testing for Salmonella, instead of cutting broken wings off of chicken carcasses."
In December 2013, a bipartisan group of 13 U.S. senators from both political parties sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to move forward with the proposal.