by George Looby

One of the first responses to change at any level is resistance. When changes are proposed at the federal level, concerns are sure to be heard throughout the country. If public health and safety are in anyway involved, the response is even larger.

The USDA is responsible for food safety, with its Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) providing oversight. A recent addition to this program is a New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS). The newly appointed head of the FSIS is Dr. Mindy Brashears, a professor of food science at Texas Tech University at the time of her appointment. She took a critical look at the program that was in the later stages of development when she arrived. With her analytical approach to examining the merits of the program she determined implementing the new program was the correct thing to do.

In truth, the new program is hardly new. It started in the 1990s when the FSIS implemented a program called the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) in 30 slaughterhouses which had volunteered to see if the inspection procedures could improve food safety and increase consumer protection. These facilities included chicken, turkey and market hog slaughterhouses. For over 20 years the “new” proposals have been in place at the volunteer facilities and have provided the data to write the new regulations that make up the NSIS. (HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. They are regulations slaughterhouses were required to develop as they worked their way into the new program.)

The agency is now well-positioned to put the NSIS into effect. The program establishes requirements applicable to meat and poultry establishments designed to reduce the occurrence and numbers of pathogenic microorganisms on meat and poultry products, reduce the incidence of foodborne illnesses associated with the consumption of those products and provide a new framework for the modernization of the current system of meat inspection. Under the new program, each establishment must develop written sanitary dressing plans and implement microbial sampling to monitor process control from enteric pathogens that can cause foodborne illness.

FSIS recently conducted an analysis to determine whether specific offline inspection tasks were performed more frequently after an establishment’s conversion to NSIS. Several interesting facts emerged from this study: Inspectors consistently completed a higher number of selected food safety-related offline inspection tasks, including the new NSIS inspection tasks, after NSIS implementation. The new NSIS Zero Tolerance Food Safety Verification task is being performed almost four times as often after conversion as compared to the pre-NSIS Poultry Zero Tolerance Verification task. The rate of noncompliance records documented for these zero tolerance tasks more than tripled in conjunction with the increase in tasks performed.

The FSIS will continue to conduct 100% inspection for all animals prior to slaughter and 100% of all carcasses as they come off the line. One feature that has been built into the new program is that packing house employees will now cull animals with obvious physical defects that would disqualify them prior to FSIS inspectors’ pre-slaughter exam. This speeds up the pre-slaughter exam and frees inspectors from having to deal with animals with obvious defects.

Not only swine, turkeys and chickens but also beef and eggs fall under the umbrella of the agency in assuring the products delivered to the public are safe for consumption. Work is underway in the latter two areas to develop updated inspection protocols. Consumers can be assured they are in good hands regarding the safety of the meat products they purchase.