Regulatory outlook: The meat industry braces for change

by Bernard Shire
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WASHINGTON — While Congress is in the process of developing and passing legislation that will modernize the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to regulate and inspect the segments of the food industry it has authority over, including seafood and produce, meat and poultry trade association officials are concerned about aspects of the bill that may impact their industry, which is regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“If these precedents pass in the F.D.A. bill, they would surely be added to any U.S.D.A. food-safety legislation down the road,” said Joel Brandenberger, spokesman for the National Turkey Federation. “They would include mandatory recall of poultry and meat products, instead of the current voluntary system, which works very well.

“Then there are civil penalties. We have inspectors in our plants continuously, so why would these penalties be needed? Civil penalties would not improve food safety, but merely be a moneymaking scheme for the government.”

A major food safety focus for the American Meat Institute is funding solutions-based research to make food products safer, including raw meat and poultry products as well as ready-to-eat products.

“The Institute has worked very hard to bring new food-safety technologies on-line to further enhance the safety of meat products, but the approval process is slow,” said Patrick Boyle, president of the A.M.I. “One often cited example is the use of irradiation on meat-carcass surfaces. The A.M.I. petitioned U.S.D.A. five years ago to approve the use of such irradiation to reduce or eliminate pathogens on carcasses, but so far there has been no approval.

“Although the delays in the decision making process have been frustrating, A.M.I. will remain vigilant in its effort to get this food-safety tool approved and implemented.”

For poultry processors, the updated Salmonella and Campylobacter performance standards are a concern (see related story in this issue of Sosland Publishing’s Food Safety Monitor).

“In the poultry industry, this year U.S.D.A. will reset the Salmonella standard,” said Richard Lobb, the National Chicken Council’s spokesman, and he suspects the amount of Salmonella tolerated on raw meat will be lowered. He also believes the F.S.I.S. will set up a pathogen program for Campylobacter, “which is even more pervasive than Salmonella,” Mr. Lobb pointed out. “The agency may require plants to achieve reductions in Campylobacter. In any case, both areas will be affected by U.S.D.A. rulemaking this year.”

National Meat Association officials said it is critical that an undersecretary for food safety finally be named. The N.M.A.’s spokesman, Jeremy Russell, said the appointment is “a must” if there is going to be more movement and efforts made for greater food safety by industry, government and consumers.

“In order to advance food safety and get all of the parties involved, there needs to be someone with political power leading the charge and getting everyone to work together,” he said. “That person is the undersecretary for food safety. The administration is likely coming to a decision on the undersecretary this year.”

The author is the Washington correspondent for Meat & Poultry magazine, a sister publication to Sosland Publishing’s Food Safety Monitor. This story originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Meat & Poultry.

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