Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, chairwoman of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, Poultry, Marketing and Agriculture Security, said the Safe Meat and Poultry Act would update the dated meat and poultry inspection and consumer notification system.
The GAO report highlighted problems with a USDA HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) proposal to change poultry inspection so that plants could speed up production and move towards risk-based inspections.
USDA has not evaluated the performance of each of the pilot projects over time even though the agency said it would do so when they were announced, said the report.
It centers on the Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection proposed rule published in the Federal Register in January last year.
Legislation to reduce outbreaks
Senator Gillibrand’s bill aims to create mandatory pathogen reduction performance standards, expand the authority of USDA to regulate new pathogens and provide whistleblower protection for government and private workers to report public health issues.
The Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida estimates the US public health and economic costs of foodborne illness to be over $14bn annually for just the top 14 pathogens.
“Consumers need to know that food safety inspectors have the tools they need to protect the public from serious illnesses. The Safe Meat and Poultry Act would give inspectors the authority and the resources they need to do their job,” said David Plunkett, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) senior food-safety attorney.
GAO made two recommendations to USDA, clearly disclose to the public limitations in the information it relied on for the proposed rule to modernize poultry slaughter inspections and collect and analyze information to determine if the young hog pilot project is meeting its purpose.
It said FSIS needed to collect further information and analysis before submitting a final rule.
“The US Department of Agriculture should scuttle its plans to speed up production lines and reduce the number of government inspectors for poultry,” said the CSPI.
“The government does not have enough evidence that the existing hog and poultry pilot programs—on which the new poultry program is based—have succeeded in resulting in safer meat.”
Currently at plants that slaughter young chickens, there may be up to four inspectors on each line, each inspecting up to 35 carcasses per minute.
FSIS’ protocols differ for testing chicken and turkey carcasses for Salmonella and Campylobacter. For example, for chickens, FSIS inspectors rinse an entire chicken carcass in a bag filled with a sterile water solution that is poured off and tested for these pathogens, said GAO.
For turkeys, FSIS inspectors use a sponge, containing the same sterile water solution as that used to rinse chicken carcasses, to swab certain areas of the turkey carcass and test the sponge for pathogens.
“Speeding up inspection makes USDA look like an agency that is more concerned about boosting corporate profits than protecting consumers from foodborne diseases,” Plunkett said.
“This legislation would refocus the agency on its primary business of protecting consumers."