Food Safety:

Risk-Based Inspections and Microbial Monitoring Needed for Meat and Poultry

RCED-94-110: Published: May 19, 1994. Publicly Released: Jun 1, 1994.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) meat and poultry inspection system, focusing on whether: (1) FSIS effectively uses its resources to ensure food safety; (2) meat and poultry plants have programs to test for microorganisms; and (3) the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) quality control concept is an effective approach for ensuring food safety.

GAO found that: (1) FSIS does not effectively use its resources to protect the public from microbes because of inflexible legal requirements and outdated, labor-intensive inspection methods; (2) the industry's growth will further strain limited FSIS resources; (3) FSIS inspection methods actually spread microbial contamination; (4) FSIS does not base its inspection allocations on risk and does not routinely test for microbial contaminants or require the industry to conduct such tests; (5) 48 percent of the processing plants reviewed conduct microbial tests to ensure the safety of their products and, as a result, most of the plants have made changes to their facilities and operations to improve safety; (6) microbial testing programs vary widely because plants develop their programs independently and without FSIS input; (7) most small plants do not have testing programs because of the cost and the lack of FSIS guidance in developing and implementing testing programs; (8) the HACCP system is generally regarded as the best available approach for ensuring food safety because it focuses on contamination prevention; and (9) although FSIS plans to issue a proposed regulation on plants' development and implementation of HACCP in 1994, it has not determined whether to require microbial testing as part of the system.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As of July 2004, 10 years after GAO issued this report, Congress has not modified the meat and poultry acts to give FSIS the flexibility and discretion to target its inspection resources to the most serious food safety risks.

    Matter: Congress should revise the meat and poultry acts to provide FSIS with the flexibility and discretion to target its inspection resources to the most serious food safety risks.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Final regulations to strengthen the meat and poultry inspection system and develop improved methods to detect and control microbial contamination were issued on July 6, 1996.

    Recommendation: To improve the safety of meat and poultry, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, FSIS, to develop a mandatory HACCP system that includes specific requirements for microbial testing and guidelines for determining when microbial test results warrant action by the plant.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 1996, the President signed new meat and poultry regulations that required the use of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems and microbial testing. As part of the new regulations, FSIS provided detailed information on microbial performance criteria and standards, including the role of microbial testing in its food safety strategy, the rationale for using E.coli and Salmonella tests, baseline values, sampling frequencies, and analytical methodologies. In July 1997, FSIS announced a second round of meetings with establishment owners and operators to be held between September and December 1997. The meetings are aimed at seeking feedback on meat and poultry plant information needs and providing technical information to assist in implementation of HACCP and microbial testing.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, FSIS, should assist meat and poultry plants in the development of their microbial testing programs by, among other things, disseminating information on the programs already in operation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Food Safety and Inspection Service


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