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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Meat and Poultry Inspection: Background and Selected Issues

Geoffrey S. Becker
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) must inspect most meat, poultry, and processed egg products for safety, wholesomeness, and labeling. Federal inspectors or their state counterparts are present at all times in virtually all slaughter plants and for at least part of each day in establishments that further process meat and poultry products. Debate has ensued for decades over whether this system, first designed in the early 1900s, has kept pace with changes in the food production and marketing industries. 

Several significant changes in meat and poultry inspection programs were included in the 2008 farm bill (P.L. 110-246), signed into law in June 2008. These include permitting certain stateinspected meat and poultry products to enter interstate commerce, just like USDA-inspected products; bringing catfish under mandatory USDA inspection; requiring an inspected establishment to notify USDA if it believes that an adulterated or misbranded product has entered commerce; and requiring establishments to prepare and maintain written recall plans. USDA's implementation of these provisions is an oversight item for the 111th Congress. Other recent inspection issues could receive continued attention in the 111th Congress, which currently appears to be focused on broader legislation to reform food safety programs—notably those of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees all foods other than meat and poultry. Issues relevant to FSIS programs include the following. 

Is enough being done to address longstanding concerns about naturally occurring microbiological contamination?
In 1996, FSIS added a sweeping new system known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP)—essentially plant-specific contamination prevention plans—on top of the traditional "sight-, smell-, and touch-based" inspection system. However, recalls due to pathogen problems continue to occur, and the significant rates of decline in the incidence of some major foodborne pathogens have not been sustained in recent years, according to government data. Past proposals to delineate pathogen performance standards and/or safe tolerance levels could again be offered. 

Should USDA have authority to mandate recalls of meat and poultry products, as advocates have requested?
FSIS now relies on the establishments to recall adulterated products but asserts that this approach, along with other enforcement tools, is sufficient to protect consumers. Those wanting mandatory recall authority also contend that an improved ability to trace animals, meat, and poultry products should be built into the system to make recalls more effective. 

Does FSIS have adequate funding and resources, and/or should industry pay more for inspection?
FSIS inspection is mainly funded through USDA's annual appropriation, with some user fees authorized to cover plant overtime and holiday inspection costs. Congress has denied successive Administrations' proposals for additional user fees. Congress also has used annual appropriations measures to direct FSIS's administration of its programs. Examples include prohibiting implementation of a rule that would allow imports of some Chinese poultry products; prohibiting the use of funds to inspect horses to be used for food for humans; and slowing the agency's implementation of a controversial "risk based inspection system" (RBIS, now being retooled as the "Public Health Based Inspection System") aimed at shifting some existing FSIS resources from processing plants and products that pose relatively lower safety risks to others posing relatively higher risks. 

Date of Report: March 22, 2010
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: RL32922
Price: $29.95

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