The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on July 31 released its final rule on the inspection system for poultry products, known as the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS). The rule, which will soon be published in the Federal Register, leaves the current regulations for line speeds unchanged and calls for poultry companies to meet new requirements to control Salmonella and Campylobacter.

The proposal for modernizing the poultry inspection system was first published on January 27, 2012, and FSIS received feedback from the public, as well as from interagency partners such as the Department of Labor. Specifically, USDA received numerous comments on the proposed rule related to line speeds' impact on worker safety, and it has partnered with the federal agencies responsible for worker safety to address those concerns.

Maximum line speeds remain capped at 140 birds per minute

In response to public comment, the maximum line speeds for plants that newly adopt the NPIS have remained capped at 140 birds per minute, consistent with the maximum speed under existing inspection programs. Additionally, all companies operating under the NPIS must maintain a program to encourage the early reporting of work-related injuries and illnesses, and FSIS employees will receive new instructions on how to report workplace hazards that may affect plant workers, including access to a confidential 1-800 number to report concerns directly to OSHA.

A proposal to increase line speeds had been strongly opposed by civil rights groups, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and as many as 68 members of Congress.

New requirements to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination

The agency calls the NPIS, a critical step forward in making chicken and turkey products safer for Americans to eat. Poultry companies will have to meet new requirements to control Salmonella and Campylobacter, and estimates that up to 5,000 foodborne illnesses will be prevented each year as a result of the NPIS, which positions food safety inspectors throughout poultry facilities in a smarter way.

According to FSIS, it will now require that all poultry companies take measures to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination, rather than addressing contamination after it occurs. Also for the first time ever, all poultry facilities will be required to perform their own microbiological testing at two points in their production process to show that they are controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter. These requirements are in addition to FSIS' own testing, which the agency will continue to perform.

"The United States has been relying on a poultry inspection model that dates back to 1957, while rates of foodborne illness due to Salmonella and Campylobacter remain stubbornly high. The system we are announcing today imposes stricter requirements on the poultry industry and places our trained inspectors where they can better ensure food is being processed safely. These improvements make use of sound science to modernize food safety procedures and prevent thousands of illnesses each year," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release.


Optional NPIS

FSIS is also introducing the optional NPIS, in which poultry companies must sort their own product for quality defects before presenting it to FSIS inspectors. This system allows for FSIS inspectors to focus less on routine quality assurance tasks that have little relationship to preventing pathogens like Salmonella and instead focus more on strategies that are proven to strengthen food safety. More inspectors will now be available to more frequently remove birds from the evisceration line for close food safety examinations, take samples for testing, check plant sanitation, verify compliance with food safety plans, observe live birds for signs of disease or mistreatment, and ensuring plants are meeting all applicable regulations.

Poultry industry groups respond to new rule

Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation, applauded the USDA’s action on the inspections rule.

“USDA is to be commended for standing up for food safety in the face of significant pressure,” said Brandenberger. “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection provides additional tools to plants and federal inspectors to verify that plant food-safety programs are protecting against foodborne illness. By allowing plant employees to conduct some preliminary sorting duties, federal inspectors will be freed to further verify testing on the spot, examine sanitation standards and enforcing safeguards throughout a processing plant.”

However, Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council, accepted the news with mixed views.

"I applaud Secretary Vilsack and the food safety professionals at the Food Safety and Inspection Service for moving forward with this rule to modernize our poultry inspection system in order to improve food safety  –  the top priority for our industry," said Brown. "We look forward to reviewing the contents of the final rule and working with the department and our members on proper implementation should our members choose to opt in to the new, voluntary system.”  

"Regarding line speeds: It is extremely unfortunate and disappointing that politics have trumped sound science, 15 years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute.  The rule also goes against global precedent, in which the limiting factors for line speeds are the ability to meet food safety standards, keeping workers safe, and the capability of the equipment to run effectively – not government regulations.  Broiler plants in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Belgium and Germany, among others, all operate at line speeds of 200 or more birds per minute."