Food Safety:

Weaknesses in Meat and Poultry Inspection Pilot Should Be Addressed Before Implementation

GAO-02-59: Published: Dec 17, 2001. Publicly Released: Jan 17, 2002.

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The Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in 1997 that it would modify its meat and poultry slaughter inspection program to make industry more responsible for identifying carcass defects. Before making the change permanent, USDA developed a model to test whether a prevention-oriented inspection system that uses plant personnel to examine each carcass and USDA inspectors to verify that quality standards are met would continue to ensure the safety of meat and poultry products. USDA's pilot project for chickens had several design and methodology problems that compromised the overall validity and reliability of its results. First, the chicken pilot that USDA designed lacked a control group--a critical design flaw that precluded a comparison between the performance of the inspection systems at those plants that volunteered to participate in the pilot and that of plants that did not participate. Second, the chicken plants that volunteered to participate in the baseline measurement phase of the pilot were not randomly selected, and they did not include plants from all chicken-producing areas or plants of all sizes. Third, the pilot project's methodology did not take into account such variables as seasonal changes and plant modifications that could affect project results. Finally, USDA's pilot project did not include features of the modified inspection systems in Australia and Canada that would be important considerations in ensuring the successful implementation of a modified inspection system nationwide. Notwithstanding the project's design problems, the data themselves do not conclusively demonstrate that modified inspections are at least equal to traditional inspections.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA provided documentation indicating that the agency has taken action to incorporate the suggestions from veterinarians and inspectors at pilot project plants. Therefore, this recommendation is closed and an accomplishment report has been approved.

    Recommendation: If USDA decides to implement modifications to its inspection system, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FSIS to consider the merits of adopting suggestions from inspectors and veterinarians at pilot project plants contained in this report, such as how to address repetitive instances of noncompliance with regulatory requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA agreed with GAO's recommendation and developed a training and certification program for plant employees. USDA's actions achieve the goal of GAO's recommendation, which is to ensure that, when USDA permanently modifies its current slaughter inspection system, plant personnel involved in tasks previously performed by federal inspectors are trained and certified to perform these duties.

    Recommendation: If USDA decides to implement modifications to its inspection system, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FSIS to, in conjunction with industry, develop a training and certification program for personnel involved in tasks previously performed by federal inspectors and require that only trained and certified plant personnel perform these duties.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA agreed with GAO's recommendation, and has developed requirements for plants to develop, implement, and maintain a written process control plan. Furthermore, the agency stated that its personnel will verify that plants are using statistical process controls. USDA's actions achieve the goal of GAO's recommendation, which is to ensure that, when USDA permanently modifies its current slaughter inspections system, process controls are in place.

    Recommendation: If USDA decides to implement modifications to its inspection system, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FSIS to require plants to adopt statistical process control systems to manage and control their production and require FSIS personnel to monitor and verify these systems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA agreed with GAO's recommendation when they commented on its draft report. The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), however, is still a model project. Therefore, phasing in plants with a good history of regulatory compliance will only take place when the modified inspections are adopted for all plants. In August 2003, USDA provided documentation indicating that the agency has developed a process for evaluating the compliance history of plants before they are allowed to participate in the pilot program. Therefore, GAO is closing this recommendation as implemented. An accomplishment report has been approved.

    Recommendation: If USDA decides to implement modifications to its inspection system, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to phase in the implementation of modified inspections so that only plants with a good history of regulatory compliance are eligible to participate and continue in the program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As April 2007, USDA has the following HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) 18 Young Chicken plants, 5 Market Hog Plants, and 4 Young Turkey Plant. FSIS is continuing the HACCP-Based Models Project because the Agency believes that the project has been shown to improve food safety and other consumer protections. The new models capitalize on the food safety and other consumer protection gains garnered by the HIMP project thus far, while still meeting the demands of the inspection laws. Under the Models Project, FSIS is requiring improvements in the protections that are currently achieved under the traditional inspection.

    Recommendation: Further, if in addition to the current pilot project for chickens, USDA decides to conduct similar pilots for other species--hogs, turkeys, or cattle--the Department should take steps to ensure that the pilot's design and methodology are sufficiently rigorous to allow more valid conclusions than in this poultry pilot.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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