USDA proposes removing line speed safeguards

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The United States Department of Agriculture has recently proposed changes to "modernize swine inspection." The changes would include removing requirements that limit the number of hog carcasses being processed per hour, allowing plants the choice to have company inspectors instead of government inspectors remove unfit or unsafe animals from the line and putting in place new guidelines requiring sampling as a means of testing for pathogens.

USDA Acting Administrator of Food Safety and Inspection Service Paul Kiecker said the proposed changes are divided into two parts: the voluntary inspection option known as the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System and the mandatory testing of pathogens on areas that come in contact with the livestock such as conveyer belts and tables instead of only testing the livestock itself.

"We expect them to control pathogens," Kiecker said. "One of the best ways to control pathogens is to make sure they do not have any fecal material or ingesta on the hog carcasses. ... There is nothing here that takes away from the current carcass-by-carcass inspection that we do.

"As part of the voluntary portion, we would allow the plants to trim carcass defects prior to presenting for inspection. To go along with that because the plant is going to do the sorting activities, we remove the line speed requirements. It would be based in what the plant could process and process under control. The goal is for them to produce the same product and it doesn't make a difference if they can do that at higher speeds."

Kiecker pointed to a pilot program the USDA has run for 15 years at five processing plants. He said the plants in the pilot program have utilized a waiver which allows for them to operate under conditions similar to the proposed changes that "seems to be working extremely well."

Iowa State Extension and Outreach swine specialist David Stender explained the proposed rule changes are aimed at making plants more efficient as a response to increasing competition.

"You have to keep making improvements because otherwise you might fall behind," Stender said. "There will always be people wondering if the food is going to be safe. I trust the system, I would eat meat from the U.S. before anywhere else in the world. The USDA is not going to jeopardize that."

Before adopting any changes, the USDA has opened up a comment period which concludes May 2. The comments have yet to be collected, but Kiecker said he is anticipating critics will highlight food safety and the safety of workers as top concerns.

"I don't think it will have any impact on food safety whatsoever," Kiecker said. "I think one thing worth noting is that critics have said the increase in line speed could increase the burden for workers and thus safety concerns. The thing to keep in mind is depending on how much you speed up and how you divide it out, a person could actually be doing less work."

Stender said this may be the first change in pathogen detection as new technology are currently being developed.

"As the technology becomes more affordable and adaptable, there is a day coming when we will be able to check for pathogens more effectively," Stender said. "That can't be anything but a win for food safety."

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