By Helena Bottemiller
Three more leading consumer groups weighed in this week on the debate over a controversial plan to revamp poultry inspection by shifting greater responsibility to companies.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, and Consumers Union each sharply criticized the proposal in their comments filed before the Tuesday deadline, which had been pushed back a month in response to sharp criticism raised by the Government Accountability Project, Food & Water Watch, and poultry inspectors.
While each group acknowledged that modernizing the system is a commendable goal, all three expressed significant concerns about the plan to expand the HACCP Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP). The model reduces the number of inspectors from USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on duty and largely turns over physical inspections to company employees, while allowing plants to significantly speed up their production lines.
FSIS says expanding HIMP would focus inspectors on food safety tasks rather than cosmetic surveillance, save taxpayers around $90 million over three years, and each year prevent 5,200 foodborne illnesses, mostly from Salmonella. The chicken and turkey industries strongly support the measure and USDA estimates it will save the industry $250 million annually. But consumer groups question whether HIMP would actually improve food safety.
"For years the poultry industry has operated under a system that allows for far greater levels of contamination than are acceptable to consumers," read CSPI's comments, submitted by staff attorney Sarah Klein. "FSIS should have reducing Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry as the central tenet behind its changes, and should apply systems that monitor and measure contamination rates."
Both bugs remain a big problem for food safety regulators. Despite a greater focus on food safety, illness rates have not improved in a decade.
In their comments to USDA, CFA pointed to data showing high levels of contamination for retail poultry products. In 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), which collaborates with CDC and USDA, found that nearly half of raw chicken breasts were contaminated with Campylobacter. In 2010, Consumer Reports found that 62 percent of whole broiler chickens purchased in 22 states were contaminated with Campylobacter; 14 percent carried Salmonella.
Echoing concerns raised by other consumer groups, CSPI said that HIMP's lack of specific requirements for microbiological testing is a "grave error." Under HIMP, plants design their own testing plans, which are only required to sample before and after chilling the birds, and CSPI is concerned the variability in testing plans between plants will make testing data harder to analyze.
CSPI and CFA both suggest that the agency adopt a uniform testing system with a required testing frequency so that each plant's performance can be monitored as any changes are made.
"CSPI believes strongly and without reservation that the testing program described in the proposal is inadequate to protect public health," read the comments. "Measuring the effectiveness of process controls is best accomplished by standardized, mandatory sampling across the industry. Sampling and testing at key points during processing ensure that the establishment's HACCP plan is operating effectively to control pathogens."
The group strongly recommended that FSIS first adopt its testing recommendations and then move to modernization with a phased-in approach, while studying the changes against baseline data to make sure that changes are not negatively impacting food safety.
CSPI and CFA also warned against removing Salmonella performance standards, a move the groups said could expose consumers to more contaminated poultry.
In their comments, CFA specifically questioned whether the data FSIS relies on to claim that HIMP plants perform better than non-HIMP plants might be skewed. CFA noted that up until last year, FSIS did not even systematically test for Campylobacter in poultry plants, so the agency has very limited data on the pathogen.
"FSIS should postpone implementation of its proposal until it has collected additional data on Campylobacter and is better able to estimate the impacts of its proposal on reducing the pathogen," read the comments, submitted by Chris Waldrop, the director of CFA's Food Policy Institute. "CFA would expect that any subsequent analysis should demonstrate a respectable decrease in Campylobacter (and Salmonella) before the agency would move forward."
Consumers Union also slammed the fact that line speeds would be allowed to bump up to 175 birds per minute, from the current 145 bpm limit.
"Line speeds should not be increased, especially not in conjunction with efforts to remove increasing numbers of inspectors from the plants. This combination will lead to more defective birds going unnoticed and appearing in the U.S. supermarkets," read the comments, submitted by CU fellow Michelle Shaefer and senior scientists Michael Hansen.
CU said it "seriously questions the premise that speeding up the processing lines will not negatively impact food safety."
All three groups urged FSIS to mandate training requirements for company inspectors, who would largely take over the roll of sorting out diseased or defective carcasses. CSPI called the lack of training requirements in the proposed plan "unacceptable."
"The training should be at least comparable to the training received by FSIS inspectors who currently conduct sorting activities, and plant sorters should be certified as having met the standards of the training prior to assuming any carcass sorting activities," said CFA in its comments.
FSIS documents about HIMP can be found here and the rule can be viewed here.