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Issues: New Food Safety Rules for U.S. Meat and Poultry

President Clinton has announced the most sweeping reform and modernization of federal rules for meat and poultry inspection in nearly a century.

"For all our technological advances, the way we inspect meat and poultry had not changed in 90 years," the president said July 6. "Even though we know that killers such as salmonella can only be seen with a microscope, inspectors were still checking on meat and poultry by look, touch and smell."

Clinton said in a nationally broadcast radio address that the hands-on system of federal inspection for spoiled meat will be thoroughly revised and brought up-to-date by the addition of new sanitation standards and the use of scientific tests to uncover the presence of disease-causing E.coli and salmonella bacteria.

"In fact, our food is very safe," the president said, adding that the new regulations will make the U.S. food supply even safer.

The new rules will require each meat packing plant in the United States to design its own safety plan, which will be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

"We're working with industry as partners," the president stressed, "challenging them to find ways to make our meat the safest it can be. Each plant will be held accountable for meeting high standards at every step of the process."

Clinton praised the collaborative process through which USDA proposed new rules in February 1995 and then worked with industry, scientists, farmers and consumers to refine the proposals and revamp the meat and poultry inspection system.

"This is the fundamental change in meat and poultry inspection called for by the National Academy of Sciences and many other experts throughout government, industry and the consumer community," Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said, hailing the new system at a White House press conference July 6. The new food safety system "scientifically targets the important hazards and builds the public health principle of prevention into every meat and poultry production process," Glickman said.

According to USDA, the four major elements of the new rules are:

-- Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP, pronounced "has-sip"): Every slaughter and processing plant will be required to adopt a HACCP plan identifying each point in the process - such as cutting, grinding and overheating - where contamination could occur and developing plans to prevent it. Each plant will have to demonstrate the effectiveness of its plan, and the effectiveness will be continually verified by inspectors from USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

-- Mandatory E.coli Testing: Every slaughter plant will have to regularly test carcasses for generic E.coli. According to USDA, this will verify the effectiveness of the plant's procedures for preventing and reducing fecal contamination, which is the major source of contamination with harmful bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella.

-- Pathogen Reduction Performance Standards for Salmonella: Every slaughter plant and plant producing raw ground meat or poultry products will have to ensure that its salmonella contamination rate is below the current measure (baseline) of national incidence. USDA will begin comprehensive salmonella testing by September 1996 and enforce the salmonella standards in conjunction with implementation of HACCP plans.

-- Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures: Every plant will have to adopt and carry out a written plan for meeting its sanitation responsibilities.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as many as 4,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses result annually from the consumption of meat and poultry contaminated by E.coli, salmonella and other pathogens. The Agriculture Department said that these deaths and illnesses are "largely preventable through actions that can be taken throughout the farm-to-table food safety chain to prevent, reduce and eliminate harmful bacteria."

According to the department, HACCP is endorsed by scientific and food safety authorities including the National Academy of Sciences and the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods as well as by such international organizations as the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods.

The new HACCP rules will take effect in stages, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said. Large establishments with 500 or more employees will have 18 months to comply, while plants with more than 10 but fewer than 500 employees will have 30 months to comply. Very small establishments, those with fewer than 10 employees or annual sales of less than $2.5 million, will have 42 months to comply.

According to FSIS, most production will be under the new rules after 18 months because large establishments account for 75 percent of slaughter production.

All of the implementation timetables begin with the publication of the new rules for meat and poultry inspection -- approximately 800 pages of material -- in the Federal Register, a USDA official explained July 9.

The implementation schedule balances the need to expedite changes to improve food safety while taking into account the time it will take the industry to develop HACCP plans and to train industry employees and government inspectors, USDA said in a July 6 release.

In addition, proposed microbial testing requirements were revised based on public comments and scientific meetings in order to improve the rules' effectiveness while reducing the economic impact on small businesses. For example, according to FSIS, "testing for all plants will not be required daily as was initially proposed but will be based on production volume."

The new meat and poultry system's cost to the industry would be about a tenth of a cent per pound or about $100 million each year after initial implementation costs of about $350 million over four years, according to USDA estimates.

In December 1995 the Food and Drug Administration adopted new rules requiring HACCP systems in the seafood processing industry.