WASHINGTON, D.C. — The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has announced it will be proposing to amend current federal meat inspection regulations, which will create a new voluntary inspection system for market hog slaughter facilities.
Similar to a regulation passed in 2014 for the poultry industry, under rules for the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS), plant employees would be allowed to determine which animals would be unfit for processing. Five large-scale slaughter facilities having been operating under a test system for the past 15 years, coined the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project (HIMP).
“FSIS is excited to continue modernizing inspection practices, while allowing opportunities for industry to innovate and streamline food production,” said Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Carmen Rottenberg. “There is no single technology or process to address the problem of foodborne illness, but when we focus our inspections on food safety-related tasks, we better protect American families.”
The new system would also bump up the number of animals plants can process by relaxing limits on line speeds, allowing each plant to determine its own speeds. In a 2014 FSIS report, the agency noted the line speed at the five HIMP plants averaged 1,099 hogs every hour, with some reaching 1,295.
This has some worried about worker and food safety. “It is irresponsible for the USDA to expand a radical change to food safety responsibility in the pork industry based on a pilot program that clearly failed to show that allowing companies to inspect themselves can produce safe food,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.
“It is unacceptable to put public health, worker safety and animal welfare at risk so that the pork industry can run faster lines and inspect itself. We urge the USDA to withdraw this proposed rule.”
Specifically, Hauter referenced a 2013 USDA Inspector General audit that stated: “(S)ince FSIS did not provide adequate oversight, HIMP plants may have a higher potential for food safety risks. Nationwide, three of the 10 plants cited with the most NRs (noncompliance records) continue to participate in the HIMP program…
“In fact, the swine plant with the most NRs during this timeframe was a HIMP plant – with nearly 50 percent more NRs than the plant with the next highest number.”
Under the new rule, all swine slaughter establishments processing market hogs would be required to implement appropriate measures to prevent contamination throughout the entire production process in their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans, Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (Sanitation SOPs) or other prerequisite programs.
For market hog establishments that opt into NSIS, the proposed rule would increase the number of offline USDA inspection tasks, while continuing 100 percent FSIS carcass-by-carcass inspection. A market hog is defined as an animal approximately six months old and whose average weight is 250 pounds.
National Pork Producers Council President Ken Maschhoff, a farmer from Carlyle, Ill., praised the proposed rule. “We support the USDA's decision to advance HIMP, as it introduces new pork production efficiencies while encouraging the deployment of new food safety technologies in packing plants,” he said.
“The pilot program yielded very positive results; expanding the program is another step forward in the industry's ongoing focus on continuous improvement of food safety and cost efficiency.”
According to FSIS, there are 612 swine slaughter plants with federal inspection that process nearly 118 million animals a year. There will be a 60-day period for comment once the rule is published in the Federal Register. Companies that do not wish to adopt the new rules can still operate under the existing inspection system.