I read with interest your HIMP article entitled “A Flying Leap” in the November issue of Meatingplace. I have a few comments, and will conclude with one request for you.
You make the comment on page 28 “Current poultry inspection is based on a system in which federal inspectors examine carcasses on the slaughter line by sight, touch and smell”. This refers to antiquated inspection which relied on organoleptic methods, i.e., sensory, which cannot detect the presence of invisible bacteria. This sensory inadequacy was the primary justification for the agency’s mid-90’s HACCP mandate, which jettisoned organoleptic inspection in favor of “Science-Based” inspection, which was primarily described as microbiological testing which is capable of detecting invisible pathogens.
Also on page 28 your article stated “What frustrates USDA officials is that a lot more is known today about how to detect and deter pathogens…” Admittedly, microbiological testing can detect those pesky and invisible bugs. A statement found in the first column on page 36 also refers to the value of testing. It states the value of HIMP “…….so that our inspectors can focus on those tasks that are scientifically proven to improve food safety”. A statement in column 3 of the same page quotes Dr. Hagen as stating “An inspector could have three days per bird and he still couldn’t see salmonella”. I’ve not witnessed any detractors who would claim that microbial testing has fewer benefits compared to organoleptic observation.
At this point however, FSIS’ intentions for HIMP inspectors’ involvement in microbial testing is quite imprecise. A statement in column 3 on page 32 states “USDA’s detailed explanations of why and how these changes are beneficial are mostly missing from online blogs and opinions expressing outrage over the proposal”. But the next paragraph on page 32 explains FSIS’ expectations of HIMP inspectors, comprised of the following:
1. HIMP provides inspectors more time to look (organoleptic) for food safety concerns.
2. Offline inspectors can collect product samples, amongst other things.
3. “FSIS would require all [HIMP] plants to have written programs to prevent carcass contamination by enteric pathogens and fecal material……” This is blatantly misleading, since every USDA-inspected plant has by necessity already incorporated this into their HACCP Plans. Preventing contamination is the very reason for our already existing Hazard Analyses, establishment of CCP’s, and our multiple pathogen intervention systems which are already fully described in our HACCP Plans, Sanitation Plans, and Prerequisite Programs. USDA’s “missing sound bite” cannot claim this advantage under HIMP.
4. “Offline verification inspectors would then review the plant’s records and test results to verify it is maintaining process control”.
#’s 2 & 4 above are worth our intensive scrutiny. #2 indicates that inspectors can “collect product samples”. FSIS makes a casual reference to sampling, lacking an aggressive, proactive commitment to the primary scientific value which is embodied by microbial testing. #4 then refers to inspectors’ review of plant’s test results.
Have you noticed through the plethora of agency public statements on HIMP that FSIS has adroitly avoided stating that HIMP inspectors would commence an appreciably greater incidence of FSIS-conducted microbial samples? One agency response seen recently is that budgetary concerns have limited the incidence of microbial sampling available to FSIS. But, the very first paragraph in your article refers to the $90 million saved by the termination of 800 inspectors, gratis HIMP. Now more than ever, FSIS will enjoy access to redirected finances which should enable the agency to proactively access the value derived from one aspect of scientific inspection, namely, microbial analyses.
On October 2, Dr. William James published a Meatingplace blog entitled “Why the new HIMP system should go forward in poultry plants”. I responded several times, primarily requesting an agency revelation of precisely how many microbial samples FSIS might collect under HIMP. Finally, Dr. James attempted to somewhat answer my question by stating “Since a huge part of the budget goes to on-line inspection, once these functions are reduced FSIS can afford to redirect resources to other activities like laboratory analyses”. Once again, it appears FSIS “might” dedicate additional funding to increased product sampling.
My concern is this: FSIS is making no definitive statements about the degree (if any) of increased agency-conducted microbial sampling at HIMP plants. Thus, in future years, if ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls of HIMP products occur, and the public requests the results of agency-conducted microbial sampling, the public will be surprised at the relative paucity of FSIS sampling. They may also discover no increase, or very little increase in FSIS sampling at HIMP plants compared to pre-HIMP days. FSIS can then respond that it never promised to increase its sampling, but merely stated that HIMP would free up inspectors to move off-line and spend more time in alternative activities, possibly including product sampling. Why would FSIS desire to know the truthful incidence of pathogen-contaminated meat? If the truth were fully discovered, the agency would be forced to implement meaningful enforcement actions, which it is loathe to do at large slaughter facilities.
Increased sampling would be contrary to FSIS promises to the industry in the mid-90’s when discussing the agency’s role under the about-to-be introduced HACCP system. The agency repeatedly made the following public statements about its role under HACCP:
Under HACCP, FSIS would embrace a “Hands Off” role at meat & poultry plants.
Under HACCP, the agency would no longer police the industry, but the industry would police itself.
Under HACCP, FSIS would disband its previous command and control authority.
Under HACCP, FSIS would not have the authority to tell plants what must be in the plants’ HACCP Plans. All plants would be authorized to write their own HACCP Plans customized to fit the precise needs of each individual plant.
Now, FSIS is telling us that HIMP inspectors will be freed from previous duties to more closely scrutinize plants’ HACCP records, prerequisites, etc to determine if the plan makes sense. Not exactly “Hands Off”, as well as authorizing the agency to mandate changes in individual HACCP Plans and related plans, a total rejection of the agency’s initial promise to not police the industry.
Thus, this is not merely a problem of FSIS’ unwillingness to precisely identify the degree of agency sampling it conducts at HIMP Plants, but it also brings into question the utter disingenuous of the agency’s pre-HACCP promises, aka as lies. I am not suggesting FSIS embrace deregulation, which I strongly oppose. I do oppose however the agency’s unethical Bait & Switch tactics. FSIS found itself painted into a corner because of its 4 promises, and is gradually reassuming its pre-HACCP rights.
The very last sentence in your article quotes Dr. Hagen as stating “If you had the opportunity to save a life, to spare a mother or father from the agony of having a child in the hospital, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?” The universal answer is a ubiquitous YES! Dr. Hagen is insinuating that anyone with concerns about the agency’s HIMP program could care less if children are sickened and hospitalized. The agency has thus degenerated to a dismissive ridicule of anyone who has the audacity to discuss potential problems within FSIS’ HIMP program. While we all want to keep children out of hospitals, the questions remains as exactly HOW FSIS intends for HIMP to accomplish this laudable goal. History has likewise shown that when FSIS is backed into a corner, lacking answers to potential criticism, the agency concludes “Well, OUR system is science-based”, hiding behind HACCP’s skirt, intimating that FSIS critics do not rely on science.
My request of you is that Meatingplace communicate with FSIS, requesting a precise explanation of the amount of microbial sampling the agency will mandate of its inspection force at HIMP plants. I guarantee that even if the agency responds, its answer will be aloof, circuitous, and imprecise. This is exactly why Dr. William James couldn’t provide a precise answer, and he should know, as he worked for FSIS for 28 years. He knows how the agency can blithely ignore erudite questions from Meatingplace, because FSIS is unaccountable for its actions. How dare anyone question the agency’s “scientific” acumen and allegedly pro-public health motives?
John Munsell, Manager
Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
Miles City, MT
November 16, 2013