Myths and Facts about the Modernization of Poultry Inspection System

accomac-inspectionLearn the myths and facts about the USDA proposed poultry inspection system, based off of a pilot program known as HIMP.

Here’s a look at separating myths versus facts about what the modernized poultry inspection system means for the chicken industry, for worker safety and the safety of chicken products.

For the Chicken Industry:

Myth: The proposed rule would “privatize” chicken inspection.

Fact:  The chicken industry remains one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States.  Under the modernization and in the HIMP pilot program, USDA remains in its oversight role and USDA inspectors will still be in every plant, looking at each carcass to ensure the safety of chicken products and providing them with the USDA seal of approval for wholesomeness.  The proportion of them doing critical food safety-related tasks will actually increase.

Specifically, a USDA poultry inspector will be stationed further down the evisceration line and just before the chiller to ensure that birds have been properly processed.  The facility will now be in charge of its own quality assurance program by training sorters to remove any quality defects from carcasses thereby allowing FSIS inspectors to focus more on food safety-related parameters and not visible defects.

Myth:  Should the proposal go through, chicken plants will simply “flip a light switch” and start operating under higher line speeds.

  First, the new inspection system would be voluntary.  Should a company opt in, implementing the new poultry inspection system would not be an easy process.

In fact, the implementation process will require extensive time, effort and investment. Substantial capital will be required to make the necessary changes – from equipment to personnel – within each chicken processing facility that chooses to implement the new poultry inspection system and production adjustments would only be made when the market dictates such.

Equipment in many chicken processing facilities is already at capacity.  If a facility wants to keep its existing equipment, it still will have to retrofit the existing layout by moving lines and installing new inspector stands.  If a processing facility wants to increase line speeds, it may have to invest millions of dollars to install a faster evisceration line depending on the capability of their existing equipment.  If a poultry company decides to increase line speeds, it may also need to add additional lines in second processing.

With the increase in record keeping, microbiological testing, and carcass sorting, more employees may be necessary.  New employees may also be necessary on the evisceration line and in second processing if a facility elects to increase line speeds.  All employees require extensive training and must be kept current on all practices and procedures within the plant.

A company cannot simply flip on a switch to increase chicken production and, as stated above, even if it could, market conditions would have to be such that increased production makes sense for that company.

For our Workforce

Myth:  The proposed rule is likely to prove harmful for worker safety.

Fact:  There is no evidence in the pilot program over the past 15 years to substantiate the assertion that increased line speeds will increase injuries.  In fact, the safety record in all poultry plants has improved dramatically.  Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data show the industry has had a 74 percent decrease in its worker injury and illness rates since 1994.

Recordable injury rates in HIMP pilot plants were 5.6 per 100 workers in 2009 and 5.3 in 2010, compared with an industry average of 6.1 per 100 workers in 2009 and 5.5 in 2010.

Myth:  Studies that looked at traditional poultry plants where line speeds were 70 to 91 birds per minute, found that 59 percent of workers had definite or possible carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Modernization would increase the percentage of workers with CTS and other repetitive motion injuries.

Fact:  These studies actually focused on plant activities outside of the slaughtering process and thus are unrelated to the activities covered in the proposed rule.

Myth: USDA expects to save $90 million over three years by firing inspectors.

Fact: USDA’s leaders at the Food Safety and Inspection Service estimate that 1,500 full-time slaughter inspectors will get upgrades from GS7 to GS8 and be moved from on-line jobs inspecting a chicken carcass an off-line position focused more on food safety issues in their plants.

These off-line inspectors are trained to provide verification measures such as examining the plant records, focusing on the plans a plant has in place to protect food safety, testing for pathogens like Salmonella and doing visual examination of the plant and its contents for sanitation issues.

USDA has said that over time if any positions are reduced it will be done entirely through attrition without backfilling, etc.—no layoffs.

For Food Safety

Myth: USDA’s modernized inspection system will increase the use of “chemicals” in chicken processing plants.

Fact: There is no evidence that USDA’s proposed poultry inspection system will increase the use of chemicals or antimicrobials in plants.

If more birds are produced, the volume of antimicrobials used may increase slightly to ensure that each bird is treated with the proper food safety interventions; the concentration levels of the antimicrobials do not increase.

But, most importantly, the volume of chicken produced is dictated by demand and the market, not line speeds or inspection systems. Increasing output simply because you can puts companies out of business.

Increasing line speeds does not equate to increased production. More than likely it means less production time, not more chickens produced, and not more antimicrobial use.

For more information about processing aids used in chicken production, please click here.

Myth:  The proposal would likely increase the rates of ‘defects’ for birds going down the processing line, allowing each plant to decide the appropriate level of ‘defects,’ which can include blisters, bruises, scabs, feathers, bile, ingesta, and a variety of poultry-specific diseases.

Fact:  Science-based evidence demonstrates that there is no correlation between visible defects and food-borne illness.  Additionally, under the proposed rule, industry must comply with current Ready-to-Cook regulatory standards, which addresses ‘defects’ for poultry products.  From a common sense viewpoint, a company would harm the marketability and demand for their product if they allowed visible ‘defects’ on their products.

Myth:  A single government inspector would have only one-third of a second to examine each chicken carcass for food safety and other problems.

Fact: You can’t see salmonella no matter how fast or slow the line speed moves.  A person cannot visually inspect a bird and point out which ones have salmonella on them or not.  Visual inspection is only one of several other scientifically-validated measures to protect food from contamination and to reduce bacteria levels at dozens of different points during the entire production process.  While visual inspection will remain a vital part of the inspection process, it will be coupled with additional pathogen detection capabilities that are essential to ensuring a safe and wholesome chicken product.

Myth:  The lack of a prescriptive testing program would prevent inspectors from holding plants accountable and ensuring that plants are testing for the most important and dangerous pathogens.

Fact:  There is no science-based evidence to demonstrate that a prescriptive testing program would improve a plant’s ability to detect dangerous food-borne pathogens.  The proposed rule would allow plants to select an indicator microorganism or pathogen to test for, based on supportable scientific evidence.  Working with a plant to develop testing programs and identifying control points would allow an inspector to hold a particular plant accountable to their vulnerabilities.  It also would allow the inspector the flexibility to identify additional points of concern in the process as they emerge.