When it was signed into law in January 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) represented the most comprehensive reform of food safety laws in over 70 years. While FSMA is focused on prevention and accountability for food products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the law does not apply, of course, to meat, poultry, catfish, or processed egg products, which are under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Poultry products are still governed by a law that was passed in 1957, and the Federal Meat Inspection Act was enacted in 1906. So, the question becomes – Can there be a FSMA for meat, poultry, catfish, and processed egg products?
This question was the topic of a panel discussion this week at the Consumer Federation of America’s 40th annual National Food Policy Conference. The panel was moderated by Brian Ronholm, Arent Fox Senior Director of Regulatory Programs and former USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, and included representatives from advocacy groups, industry, academia, and government.
The panel discussion focused on an effort undertaken by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Cargill, Inc. to develop recommendations that would modernize the food safety system for FSIS-regulated products. Sandra Eskin, Director of the Safe Food Project at Pew, revealed that a report containing the recommendations would be forthcoming within the next few months. She previewed the recommendations, indicating that it would address pre-harvest food safety, risk-based inspection at slaughter and processing, and the enhanced use of risk assessment and data.
Eskin outlined the process for how Pew and Cargill developed the recommendations, noting that it convened a group of over 20 stakeholder groups and engaged with a facilitator organization in order to achieve consensus on critical issues. In taking this approach, Pew and Cargill are attempting to replicate the dynamics that existed in the debate over FSMA, which was passed with the support of consumer advocates and industry groups. Mike Robach, Cargill’s Vice President for Corporate Food Safety and Regulatory Affairs, also appeared on the panel and made the case for a modernized inspection system.
Within the parameters of existing statutes, USDA’s FSIS began reforming their inspection systems over the past several years, starting with the release of the final rule on modernizing the poultry inspection system in July 2014. Under this rule, FSIS now requires poultry companies to take measures to prevent Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination, rather than addressing contamination after it occurs. The rule also requires all poultry facilities to perform their own microbiological testing at two points in their production process to demonstrate effectiveness in controlling these pathogens; this requirement is in addition to FSIS' own testing.
This rule also introduced an optional New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS), in which poultry companies must sort their own product for visual defects before presenting it to FSIS inspectors. This system allows for inspectors to deemphasize routine quality assurance tasks unrelated to food safety and instead focus more on measures that are proven to strengthen food safety.
A controversial element of this original proposal would have allowed the maximum line speed for poultry slaughter facilities in the voluntary NPIS program to be increased from 140 birds per minute (bpm), to 175 bpm. However, the final rule capped the line speed at the current 140 bpm level in response to public comments that included strong opposition from consumer advocacy groups and the inspectors union. It is conceivable that the line speed issue will be revisited under the Trump Administration.
Subsequent to their work on poultry slaughter, FSIS shifted toward developing a proposal that would implement a similar inspection system for hog slaughter establishments. During the panel discussion, Roberta Wagner, FSIS Assistant Administrator for the Office of Policy and Program Development, asserted that the agency is still planning on moving forward with this proposal, while acknowledging that policy development activities are on hold at the department as they await the confirmation of Sonny Perdue to be USDA Secretary. It is not clear whether the forthcoming proposal for hog slaughter facilities will include an increase in line speed, but it is certain that the Trump Administration would be more amenable toward the issue.
It is far too early to forecast the advancement of the forthcoming recommendations from Pew and Cargill should it translate into a legislative proposal. However, in their attempt to replicate the inclusive process that resulted in the passage of FSMA, Pew and Cargill are establishing a strong foundation to start from, while also recognizing the different dynamics and cultures that will exist in any effort to modernize the meat and poultry inspection system. While the Trump Administration would seem naturally inclined to resist any industry reform effort, it would be difficult to ignore any recommendations or proposals with significant input and support from a wide variety of stakeholder groups.