This summer, let alone the past year, has been a busy one for new programs and guidelines from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). In May alone, the department announced new food-safety protections for consumers, the intention to target six new strains of E. coli in raw beef trim and a streamlined meat and poultry label-approval process. How will these changes affect processors, and what’s on the horizon?

Just in time for the summer grilling season, USDA-FSIS launched the Public Health Information System (PHIS), which aims to replace and improve upon existing foodborne hazard programs (the Performance Based Inspection System and Automated Import Information System) by analyzing data quickly to detect and stop foodborne illnesses.

Its new coordinated — and streamlined — approach will utilize data from domestic inspection, import activities, export activities and predictive analytics to pinpoint emerging food-safety risks before they reach consumers, through analyzing trends, patterns and information from inspection and sampling activities.

For example, if PHIS analysts identify a relationship between Salmonella test results and inspection findings they could alert field and headquarters personnel about a potential food-safety risk.

PHIS analysts can also use the new database system to alert inspection personnel to establishments with high incomplete or noncompliant inspection activities. In addition, they can use the system to remind inspectors to carry out routine hazard-analysis verifications, as well.

Exports will no longer follow a paper-based system anymore, but will be completely automated. Processors now have to compute establishment applications for approval to export, applications for export certificates and receive export certificates electronically. By going electronic, the FSIS can also provide exporters an automated edit-check capability ensuring that they meet foreign country’s import requirements.

USDA-FSIS also recently announced changes to its Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) product-sampling programs in ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry products. The recent Federal Register is indicating that RTE samples (up from three to five samples of 25 g per sample unit) for Lm testing will be pooled into one 125 g sample for testing using FSIS methods.

These changes in testing are related only to routine Lm testing that takes place on actual RTE product, and do not impact testing of food contact and non-contact surface samples taken during routine testing.

“FSIS has estimated that in addition to the additional product samples taken for testing, the industry should expect to see a drop in the amount of product being allowed to leave the facility, as they anticipate detecting a higher amount of adulterated product,” says Matthew Taylor, Ph.D., assistant professor of meat science, Texas A&M University, based in College Station, Texas.

The FSIS estimates that approximately 1 percent of products will be adulterated and detected based on currently available testing data, or about 90 cases of sickened consumers per year will be prevented by new testing and adulterant detection.

“While FSIS has estimated a cost savings for their laboratory testing by compositing of samples to be approximately $40,000, FSIS also estimates an additional $58.6 million will be lost by the industry based on rates of adulterated product detection and average cost per pound of implicated product,” says Taylor. FSIS seeks comments by November 23rd on this notice.

This June, the FSIS confirmed it would implement routine verification testing for six Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STECs), in addition to the now-standard E. coli O157:H7, in raw beef manufacturing trimmings. To test or not to test pathogens at the end of the production process is always controversial in the meat and poultry industry, with some arguing that preventative steps throughout the process are far more important.

“End product testing does not make food safer,” says H. Russell Cross, Ph.D., professor of meat science and head, department of animal science, Texas A&M University. “It’s effective HAACP programs with strong pathogen interventions that make food safer. Microbial testing is effective to validate the effectiveness of interventions.”  

Cross notes that strong evidence exists to show that interventions currently being used for E. coli O157:H7 are also effective for the STECs.

“To the best of my knowledge, it is not yet clear that fresh beef has been the source of non-O157 STECs that have resulted in foodborne illness; I am not aware of any data that has established such a link,” says Keith Belk, Ph.D., professor, Center for Meat Safety & Quality, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo. “Nonetheless, most verification and validation data that I am aware of indicate that the plant controls already in place to address E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella have proven to also be effective in controlling prevalence of the non-O157 STECs.”

Current testing technologies are still nowhere near real-time, notes Walker, and their sensitivity is still hindered by food components, and the opportunity for potential or presumptive positives to occur.

“These types of false positive results tend to cost the industry significant losses in product retail dollars by the redirection of products into further processing schemas,” he says.

Almost a year ago, the FSIS proposed a new inspection system for young chicken and turkey slaughter establishments that would replace the current Streamlined Inspection System (SIS), the New Line Speed Inspection System (NELS) and the New Turkey Inspection System (NTIS).

The agency is also proposing several changes that would affect all establishments that slaughter poultry other than ratites, regardless of the inspection system under which they operate.

Key elements of the new inspection system include: requiring establishment personnel to conduct carcass sorting activities before FSIS conducts online carcass inspection so that only carcasses that the establishment deems likely to pass inspection are presented to the carcass inspector; reducing the number of online FSIS carcass inspectors to one per line; permitting faster line speeds than are permitted under the current inspection systems it replaces; and removing the existing Finished Product Standards (FPS) and replacing them with a requirement that establishments that operate under the new system maintain records to document that the products resulting from their slaughter operations meet the regulatory definition of ready-to-cook poultry.

Last fall, USDA-FSIS implemented revised and new performance standards aimed at reducing the prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter in young chickens and turkeys. Many poultry processors wonder how far USDA-FSIS will go this year in lowering Salmonella and Campylobacter standards.