Poultry Inspection Modernization
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been exploring the modernization of its poultry inspection system for two decades – a system that was originally developed in the 1950s. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service in 1997 reported that studies by the National Academy of Sciences, the General Accounting Office and USDA “have established the need for fundamental change in the USDA meat and poultry inspection program.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been exploring the modernization of its poultry inspection system for two decades – a system that was originally developed in the 1950s. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in 1997 reported that studies by the National Academy of Sciences, the General Accounting Office and USDA “have established the need for fundamental change in the USDA meat and poultry inspection program.”
A pilot program was put in place in 1997 in 20 chicken plants, called the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project, or HIMP. The goal of HIMP was to test an alternative food safety inspection system that sought to decrease pathogen contamination in poultry by refocusing FSIS inspector activities from low-value food safety activities such as carcass sorting to high-value food safety activities such as offline food safety verification tasks. It has since been studied, debated and reviewed in depth for almost 20 years to assure its effectiveness as to how best modernize chicken inspection while improving food safety and protecting workers.
As part of the new inspection system, plants were permitted to operate their evisceration line speeds at 175 birds per minute, versus 140 birds per minute in traditional inspection systems. The evisceration line is the part of the plant where the birds’ organs are removed, the carcass is cleaned and inspected. This part of the process is highly automated and it is not the part of the plant where the birds are killed, or where workers cut up the chicken for packaging.
Because of the success of the pilot program over a 13 year period, USDA in 2012 proposed to give more chicken plants the option of operating under the new system, which USDA now calls the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS). Those plants that opted in to NPIS would be allowed to operate at 175 bpm under the proposed rule.
In 2014, FSIS published the final NPIS regulation, based in large part on HIMP. NPIS incorporated many of HIMP’s components, and in proposing the rule, FSIS explained that “permitting FSIS to conduct more food safety related offline inspection activities, will allow for better use of FSIS inspection resources, and will lead to industry innovations in operations and processing.” This was consistent with HIMP’s original goal.
However, despite FSIS’s findings that HIMP plants could maintain food safety standards using line speeds of up to 175 bpm, the final rule arbitrarily limited participating establishments’ line speeds to 140 bpm for chickens without meaningful justification. The arbitrarily limited line speeds have deterred many establishments from opting into the NPIS system, and significantly fewer plants opted into the program than FSIS anticipated.
Ultimately, with either inspection system—traditional poultry inspection or NPIS—and with any line speed, 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.