The U.S. Government Accountability Office Wednesday said the USDA's proposal to modernize poultry inspection and the pilot program the proposal is based on requires further review before it can be fully implemented.
The program the new policies are part of is known as the HACCP-based Inspection Models Project. It is an effort to modernize the way poultry and young hogs are processed, USDA says, to improve public health. The proposal includes a controversial change that allows poultry processors to examine birds at faster speeds.
While GAO in its latest report regarding the program concluded that the new inspection plan requires more up-to-date data to clarify the impact of the changes, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said it has already updated the analyses used to support the proposed rule, and the results continue to support moving forward with it.
FSIS further said it will present the updated analyses with it issues the final rule, in a manner that will facilitate public understanding of the information used to support the rulemaking.
"While an initial scan of the press coverage may lead you to believe that GAO discredits (the HIMP proposal), that is not the case. GAO gave HIMP a thorough review and made just two recommendations, both of which FSIS is already working to fulfill," noted FSIS Administrator Al Almanza in a USDA blog post.
Almanza further said that GAO did not include "facts that deserve public disclosure," such as projections that the HIMP system will prevent at least 5,000 more foodborne illnesses annually. Almanza said that an independent audit of the program also found that the "approach was valid."
The National Chicken Council, original supporter of the USDA's modernization rule, also highlighted GAO's more positive conclusions that found the modernized poultry inspection system gives plants more responsibility and flexibility for ensuring food safety and quality.
Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., NCC vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, said GAO's report indicates that the modernization plan allows USDA inspectors to focus more on food safety activities, something NCC supports.
"This proposal is about making food safer," Peterson said in a released statement. "In an effort to continue our progress towards reducing foodborne illnesses, we believe that the poultry inspection system should be modernized to transition to a model that is more science and risk-based."
As for the portion of the proposal that bumps up the speed of inspection lines – which has caused concern that inspectors' and workers' safety is at risk – Peterson said Occupational Safety and Health Administration data supports the change, per line speed pilot program results.
"OSHA data speaks for itself: we have a sustained record of improving the safety of our workplace during the last two decades," she said. "Over the past 14 years of this pilot program there has been no evidence to substantiate the assertion that increased line speeds will increase injuries."
She argued that while it is not in a poultry processor's best interest to operate at speeds that harm workers, it's also not best to operate at speeds that can't produce high-quality, safe products.
In response to suggestions about implementation, USDA said it already has plans to produce compliance guidelines that would streamline the training of poultry slaughter employees who conduct carcass and associated viscera sorting activities.
"One thing is certain – whether chicken plants operate under traditional inspection or choose to opt in to this voluntary, modernized inspection system, the end result is the same – rigorous food safety standards are applied to all chicken products and these products must meet or exceed these safety standards set forth by USDA in order to reach consumers," Peterson added.