USDA keeps existing line speed in poultry inspection rule

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

USDA has published the optional New Poultry Inspection System final rule
USDA has published the optional New Poultry Inspection System final rule

Related tags Food safety

The maximum inspection line speed is to stay at 140 birds per minute for companies that opt into an updated poultry inspection rule by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The agency said in response to public comment, the maximum line speeds for plants that adopt the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) will remain capped, consistent with existing inspection programs, and not move up to 175 as planned in the 2012 proposed rule.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will require poultry companies take measures to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination, rather than addressing the problem after it occurs.

Stricter requirements

Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary, said it was an updated science-based inspection system which positions inspectors in a smarter way.

“The system we are announcing today imposes stricter requirements on the poultry industry and places our trained inspectors where they can better ensure food is being processed safely​,” he said.

“These improvements make use of sound science to modernize food safety procedures and prevent thousands of illnesses each year.”

The system is modelled on the HACCP Inspection Models Project (HIMP).

Poultry facilities will be required to perform their own microbiological testing at two points in the production process to show that they are controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Line speed decision reaction

Mike Brown, National Chicken Council president, welcomed the final rule but expressed disappointment with the decision on line speeds.

“Regarding line speeds: It is extremely unfortunate and disappointing that politics have trumped sound science, 15 years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute,” ​he said.

“The rule also goes against global precedent, in which the limiting factors for line speeds are the ability to meet food safety standards, keeping workers safe, and the capability of the equipment to run effectively – not government regulations.

“Broiler plants in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Belgium and Germany, among others, all operate at line speeds of 200 or more birds per minute.”

FSIS is introducing the optional NPIS, in which poultry companies must sort their own product for quality defects before presenting it to FSIS inspectors.

This system allows the inspectors to focus less on routine quality assurance tasks that have little relationship to preventing pathogens and focus more on proven strategies to strengthen food safety.

More inspectors will be available more often to remove birds from the evisceration line for close examinations, take samples for testing, check plant sanitation, verify compliance, observe live birds for signs of disease or mistreatment, and ensure plants are meeting regulations, said USDA-FSIS.

Based on ‘incomplete data’

Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch executive director, said the USDA received more than 175,000 public comments on the rule.

Rather than making the contents of a revised rule public and creating a new comment period, the USDA and the White House are making a dramatic change to how poultry is inspected based on incomplete data and limited public review.

“Food & Water Watch is exploring if there are any further options to stop the rule.”

Hauter added that the cap of line speed to 140 birds per minute was not a meaningful victory because there are no accompanying worker safety regulations.

“In addition, the one USDA inspector left on the slaughter line under this new rule will still have to inspect 2.33 birds every second – an impossible task that leaves consumers at risk.”

Salmonella Action Plan

FSIS estimates that the NPIS will prevent nearly 5,000 Salmonella and Campylobacter foodborne illnesses each year.

The inspection model is part of the agency's Salmonella Action Plan, unveiled in December 2013, which includes revised pathogen reduction performance standards for all poultry, and standards for poultry parts, which are expected to be announced later this year.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it would reduce the number of government inspectors in poultry processing plants.

“In its desire to save some nine million dollars next year, the USDA missed the boat on designing a scientific approach to modernizing poultry inspection,” ​she said.

“With more than 600 people sick from the Foster Farms outbreak alone, this is hardly the time to reduce USDA’s oversight of the poultry industry.”​ 

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