Even with revision, new poultry slaughter rule is a step forward

The Obama administration and the USDA’s FSIS deserve credit for not caving in completely to political pressure from activist groups and going forward with its modernization of poultry inspection.

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The Obama administration and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) deserve credit for not caving in completely to political pressure from activist groups and going forward with its modernization of poultry inspection, albeit with some modifications from the rule which was published January 27, 2012.  The core change in the proposed rule is the shift of carcass sorting responsibility from USDA FSIS personnel to the processor’s employees and, according to USDA’s announcement on July 31, 2014, this change will be maintained in the final rule.

The most significant difference between the proposed rule and the final rule is that evisceration line speeds for broiler plants will remain capped at the current 140 birds per minute rather than be allowed to increase to 175 birds per minute as was allowed in the proposed rule. The New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) will allow turkey plants to operate at evisceration line speeds up to 55 birds per minute. This represents an increase from the current maximum speeds for two inspector turkey evisceration lines which are currently at 51 and 45 birds per minute for light turkeys and heavy turkeys, respectively.

The USDA’s intention to shift to NPIS is sometimes referred to as a transition to a HIMP-like inspection system. The Hazard Inspection Models Project (HIMP) is a successful pilot program which has demonstrated that having company employees sort carcasses prior to online USDA inspection has improved product quality and has helped the participating plants to achieve better-than-industry-average performance in microbiological testing of carcasses.

Broiler plants operating under HIMP had the option of operating at line speeds up to 175 birds per minute if good process control was maintained. USDA reports that these HIMP broiler plants only operated at an average speed of 133 birds per minute and this historical data along with concerns raised about worker safety by activists groups were cited by USDA as reasons for the change in the final rule back to 140 birds per minute.

Going ahead with NPIS is a step forward for the poultry industry, because I think it will continue to the shift the industry’s focus away from regulatory compliance and on to food safety. Sometimes the industry gets tunnel vision focusing on meeting Salmonella standards for post-chill carcass rinses while at the same time arguing that these aren’t an accurate measure of food safety improvement. Ultimately, the responsibility for ensuring that poultry products are safe and wholesome isn’t the regulators’, it is the poultry company’s responsibility. Any step that reinforces the fact that the industry is responsible for product safety and not regulators and government inspectors is a step forward.

The decision to keep high-speed broiler evisceration lines capped at 140 birds per minute is somewhat disappointing because it sets limits on future innovation. These same evisceration lines are routinely being operated in Europe at speeds of 175 birds per minute and higher. We’ve all heard the term “thinking outside the box” used to describe the thought process used by many creative people. The more hard limits we set on a process, the more confining our box will be. The poultry industry operates just fine in second processing without arbitrary line speed regulations, and first processing shouldn’t be any different.

Terrence O'Keefe  can be reached at [email protected]. Connect on social media via Google+ and LinkedIn

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