Regardless of your views on the recent election, maintaining the political status quo makes predicting next year’s changes in meat and poultry regulation easier. Here’s how I see 2013 unfolding:

Poultry slaughter modernization: This has been and will likely remain the No. 1 priority for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). As proposed, the modernized inspection system will assign responsibility to the establishments to sort birds, thereby reducing the number of FSIS inspectors at poultry slaughter plants, while leaving one inspector on the line to meet the statutory requirement of bird-by-bird inspection. This would reduce the costs of inspection.

Moreover, FSIS does have the data generated under the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project to show the modern inspection system should result in lower Salmonella levels. Maintaining food safety at a lower government cost should be a winning combination, but unions recognize the proposal would cost union jobs, and consumer representatives want assurances that the new system will be at least as effective in terms of food safety.

One expects to see a final regulation by the end of winter (which may address the concern on ensuring food safety is maintained). A lawsuit by the union is a possibility, but from my legal perspective, this should only delay implementation, not stop it. This regulation could be implemented at the initial plants by the end of the fiscal year (September 30). With poultry slaughter taking priority, one should not expect any new major initiative (absent a new crisis). In its “spare time,” FSIS likely will plug away at the initiatives it began in 2012.

Labeling of tenderized products: Perhaps the first initiative in 2013 will be publication of a proposed rule on mechanically tenderized products. The proposal would require that these products be labeled to indicate that they are mechanically tenderized and that the labels bear validated cooking instructions. FSIS sent the proposed rule to OMB last September.

Non-O157 STEC: By proceeding deliberately, letting the science guide its decision making, FSIS had a smooth initial implementation of its trim testing for the six non-O157 STECs deemed adulterants in 2012. Data continues to support that, if a slaughter establishment has an effective food-safety system, the system prevents STECs generally. Using E. coli O157:H7 testing as ongoing verification of system effectiveness, coupled with validation testing of non-O157 STEC to ensure these pathogens are not present in the finished product, seems to have been effective in controlling non-O157:H7. Obviously, in the absence of an effective food-safety system, pathogens can make it to product. The expectation is FSIS will next begin testing other raw ground components in the spring, before turning to raw ground beef testing.

Salmonella testing of raw ground: FSIS has indicated its intention to stop routine Salmonella performance standard testing of raw ground beef. FSIS has already ceased Salmonella testing of heifers and steers. Although FSIS will no longer sample ground as part of a performance set, the agency will analyze the routine E. coli O157:H7 samples for Salmonella as well. It should be noted that this will increase the analytical sample size for Salmonella from 25 grams to 325 grams (the analytical sample size for O157). This increase in analytical size may result in an increased number of positive samples. If we see a new initiative in 2013, it will likely involve Salmonella in raw beef.

Holding products while FSIS analyses are pending: FSIS has indicated it will adopt a policy that inspectors will not apply the mark of inspection to products implicated by an FSIS analysis for an adulterant until the sample results have been received. The policy has been written and needs the final clearance before issuance.

Validation: The most current draft validation guideline was posted, and the time for comments has past. Overall, the latest draft reflects a reasonable expectations. We will find out how that translates during PHIS hazard analysis verifications and Food Safety Assessments in 2013.