The US government is to push ahead with a new risk-based meat inspection system in April despite concerns raised by industry and consumer groups.
Federal meat inspectors will be conducting "robust" risk-based inspection (RBI) in 254 processing plants in 30 locations starting in April, said the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary for Food Safey, Dr Richard A Raymond in a news conference yesterday.
Meat industry and consumer groups have expressed concern at the announcement. While they support the idea of RBI, they say that the plan is not ready for rolling out so soon.
Under Secretary Raymond said the plan will expand to 150 locations by the end of 2007.
The idea of RBI is to spot problems before they develop, to anticipate and prevent outbreaks rather than just react to them after the event.
Meat inspectors already conduct inspections on a daily basis. Under the new system FSIS says it is going to make better use of the information that is already collected.
FSIS will use the daily inspection data to assess the relative risk of the products made at a plant, which when taken into account with the actions the plant is taking to control the risk, will help FSIS to target inspections where they will be most needed.
"To continue to prevent foodborne illness, we have to improve our prevention capabilities, not just respond quickly after an outbreak occurs," said Raymond. "Our inspectors visit every one of these plants every day and that won't change. What will change is we will no longer be treating every plant like every other plant in terms of its adverse public health potential," he added.
The meat industry is not objecting to the principle of RBI but to the way it is being introduced.
The American Meat Institute (AMI) urged the USDA to slow down the process and to make participation voluntary. The industry was also annoyed by the fact that the plants to be inspected did not know they were on the list until hours before the announcement.
AMI's President and CEO, J. Patrick Boyle, said in a statement responding to the government's announcement that "While shifting to a risk-based inspection system for processed meat and poultry products makes theoretical sense, the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) hasty roll-out of this program without affirmative support from its inspectors' union, consumer organizations and participating meat and poultry companies could unnecessarily jeopardize consumer confidence in a meat and poultry supply that has improved its safety profile dramatically over the last decade."
Raymond said that the gradual roll out of the new RBI system will allow it to be evaluated and revised before going nationwide.
Consumer groups such as the Food and Water Watch and the Consumer Federation of America are also not happy with the way the USDA is going about the initiative. Some say that the current inspection data does not give enough information for risk-based assessment to work properly, while others say that the move is reckless and probably just a way for the government to reduce spending.
The announcement has also ruffled some feathers on Capitol Hill. Representative Rosa DeLauro, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees USDA, said that she thinks it is a mistake for USDA to be moving forward on this at this time and she "will be monitoring what happens very closely."
The objections to the government's action boil down to two arguments. One is that by not involving all the stakeholders in the planning and design of the new system the government will not get the co-operation needed to make it work "transparently".
And the second argument that is being made by the objectors is that the data going into the risk assessment will be flawed.
This second point, if correct, is disturbing, for under the new system processing plants that are not deemed to be high risk will be inspected less often than those that are. The achilles heel of risk-based systems is the accuracy and reliability of the data. If you get the assessment wrong, then you could end up targetting the wrong plants and leaving higher risk plants out of the loop.
Source: Bio-Bio Technology