Changes to inspection practices at pork packing plants have been on the books a short time, but the process behind the change was years in the making.
On Sept. 17, the USDA announced its final rule, which includes the New Swine Inspection System, stating in a news release that it will “modernize swine slaughter inspection and bring it into the 21st century.”
The changes include more company involvement in the inspection process for both live animals and carcasses, with Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) personnel maintaining final approval on all animals before and after slaughter.
Under the new programs, FSIS offline inspectors will “conduct more food safety and humane handling verification tasks to protect the food supply and animal welfare.”
The new rule is the culmination of a pilot project that began about 20 years ago, says Paul Kiecker, FSIS deputy administrator. He says the project started with a look at the poultry inspection process, with hogs next in line.
Kiecker says roughly 15% of the pork produced in the U.S was part of this pilot project. He says those five plants are the only plants currently operating under the voluntary portions of the new rule.
Any plants wishing to implement the voluntary aspects of the rule must notify FSIS by March 30, Kiecker says.
The rule should help ensure greater accountability on the part of the plants that participate, he says, adding having two sets of eyes on the entire process benefits the pork industry.
“I don’t see anything that doesn’t help us both,” Kiecker says. “We’re still going to have 100% inspection on anything going into the food chain.”
The new rule should encourage plants to be more innovative and efficient, says Sarah Little, vice president of communications for the North American Meat Institute.
It also allows FSIS inspectors to focus more on food safety, she says, adding changing their current inspection process is voluntary.
Little says some concerns have been expressed about line speed as it relates to worker safety. She says data accumulated over the course of the pilot project indicates that should not be an issue.
“What we are seeing are levels very close to the current cap,” Little says.
She says plant employees will be part of an inspection process involving 100% of all hogs and carcasses. But plant employees “can never overrule USDA,” she says.
“USDA will remain the final authority on all of it,” Little says.
Also included in the rule are new requirements for microbial testing to ensure control of all pathogens throughout the system. All plants must also develop sanitary dressing plans, and microbial sampling must be part of the control process for enteric pathogens that can cause foodborne illness, according to the USDA.
The final rule may be found online at bit.ly/2OOym9C.