US meat hygiene initiative

1 September 2000

US meat hygiene initiative

hit for six by appeal court

American meat packers and processors had hoped that the

future of food safety inspection lay with the new HACCP

self-inspection system. But all that is in jeopardy now, as

Illinois-based ag correspondent Alan Guebert explains

THE US Department of Agricultures Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) took two hard hits in June over the agencys controversial initiative that empowers meat packers and food processors to inspect and declare their own products safe for sale to the public. Both actions call into question the future of the initiative in the US and overseas.

The initiative, called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point System (HACCP) was first slammed by USDAs in-house Office of Inspector General on June 21. The 427-page report noted that HACCP, begun in 1996 and now operating as a pilot in about 20 of the 6000 US meat and poultry packing plants, "has reduced (FSIS) oversight short of what is prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer."

And, it continued, the problem is not just an American one. "FSIS approved HACCP equivalency status to foreign countries without adequately developing and implementing procedures for determining the equivalency of foreign inspection systems or clearly documenting such determinations." Which in plain English means that FSIS didnt check that foreign food safety inspection systems were working to the same standards as US ones.

As if to prove the reports central concerns, an HACCP-approved milk bottler in Japan, Snow Brand, temporarily closed 21 plants on July 12 after more than 12,000 cases of food poisoning were tracked to low-fat milk from a Snow Brand facility.

The explosive report – and the subsequent tainted milk in Japan – sent USDA reeling because it has staked the future of global food safety on science-based self-inspections by meat packers and food makers.

But then came an even bigger shot. On June 30 the Washington DC Federal Court of Appeals, arguably the second highest court in the country, ruled that HACCP "violates the clear mandates of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products, Inspection Act."

The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed by The Community Nutrition Institute and a federal meat inspectors union who claimed HACCP permits packer and processor employees to inspect products for safety. US law, however, requires USDA employees to do inspections.

American law, noted the courts short, tough decision, requires US federal inspectors "stationed at fixed points along the slaughter processing lines" to perform "post-mortem inspections of the carcasses and parts of all livestock and birds processed for human consumption."

But HACCP permits packers and processors – with USDA inspectors looking over their shoulders like a football referee – to inspect and approve their own products as safe. The court slaughtered this lessening of the standard by saying bluntly "Every inspection entails an observation, but not every observation amounts to an inspection …and inspection is what these statutes demand."

The court decision is a "dagger in the heart" to HACCP, says Rod Leonard, a former USDA and White House food safety official. Mr Leonard was one of the litigants who sued USDA because he believes HACCP allows USDA to abdicate its safe food responsibilities.

"HACCP was sold by USDA as a better science-based approach to meat and poultry inspection," explains Mr Leonard. "In practice, though, HACCP really is little more than the old poke and sniff inspection. The only thing different is that the packers, not USDA, are doing the poking and sniffing.

"The law says food safety is the job of the federal government, not packers. Under HACCP, consumers are being turned into guinea pigs."

Thomas Billy, FSIS administrator, strongly defended HACCP in a July 19 conference call to the media. He offered initial data from seven HACCP pilot slaughtering plants that he said "raises the bar" higher than "traditional slaughter inspection."

But Mr Leonard isnt buying Mr Billys explanation. "HACCP makes food safety a company issue. But food safety is a public issue. USDA, by law, must do the inspection. Thats what the court held."

HACCPs newly-bloodied American nose will stain already-ugly world ag trade talks. FSIS boss Mr Billy is also the chairman for Codex Alimentarius Executive Committee, an intergovernmental body with strong industry participation that sets trade-promoting global food safety standards.

HACCPs broken nose in the US threatens its standing as a model for implementing Codex standards around the world.

For now, however, FSIS – through Mr Billy – maintains HACCP holds promising potential both here and abroad. Others are far less sunny. "We just dont know where HACCP is today or where it will be tomorrow," says one meat industry source.

Clearly, though, the self-inspection idea is in serious trouble, both in the US and abroad. USDA could appeal against the courts HACCP-gutting decision.

Observers doubt that route will be taken because the court was crystal clear in stating that HACCP, under its current construction, violates US law.

That issue could be met two ways. One would be to replace company inspectors with impartial government inspectors. Sources say this would satisfy the law but be more costly.

Another HACCP-saving route, one pregnant with peril, though, is for USDA to ask Congress to change American meat inspection laws to facilitate HACCPs self-inspection. In his July 19 press conference, however, FSIS boss Mr Billy admitted USDA has no plans to undertake that massive, complex effort.

Whatever action is forthcoming, there is no doubt that HACCP does not meet current US laws, regardless of what USDA and its food safety chief Mr Billy tell the American press or Codex.

If no action is forthcoming, HACCP, born in America, will be buried in America.

In practice,

though, HACCP

really is little more than the old poke and sniff inspection. The only thing different is that the packers, not USDA, are doing the

poking and sniffing

The law says food

safety is the job

of the federal

government, not

packers. Under HACCP, consumers are

being turned into

guinea pigs

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