HACCP program brings mixed reviews
Washington, DC — The government`s new food inspection plan for the nation`s meat and poultry plants is being touted as both the saving grace and the downfall of contamination control. The preferred label depends on who`s talking.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program is working just fine, calling it a “revolutionary improvement” over the older methods of meat inspection that relied on inspectors` touch, sight, and smell. But, members of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, the union representing inspectors, claim it ought to be dubbed “Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray.”
Randy Wurtele, president of the Western Council, says inspectors` concerns focus on the fact that the way HACCP is implemented now constitutes a breach of agreement between the USDA`s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the union. “It`s being used to replace regulations, not as an enhancement. It`s nothing more than an abdication of the government`s role and responsibility in proving liability when something goes wrong,” he contends, saying that inspectors` roles have changed from actually doing testing to that of simply checking company documents.
HACCP is a process control system that has been used for more than 50 years, with many variations. The program took effect in January 1998 at the nation`s 2,300 largest plants. Almost 3,000 smaller plants came under the plan January 25; very small plants, those with fewer than 10 employees, are required to implement HACCP in January 2000. As applied to the food industry, its objective is to prevent contamination and adulteration of food, rather than correct it after production. The science-based system requires processing plants to identify critical points along production lines and to use microbial testing to ensure that manufacturing practices minimize bacterial contamination and bacterial growth.
FSIS`s stance is that plants must take care of contamination problems. “The shift of responsibility for a clean product is to where it properly belongs — in the industry itself, ” says FSIS spokesperson Linda Swanica. “But they are not monitoring themselves. We still take samples. We still test. And we still monitor every day by having inspectors on the scene. This isn`t self-policing.” Swanica explains that under HACCP each processing plant must analyze its processes to decide at what points hazards might exist that could affect the safety of its products. These points are called critical control points. “They might be chilling, the cooking process, processing procedures such as filling and sealing cans, and slaughtering procedures such as removal of organs,” she notes.
Once the plant establishes critical control points, it is also responsible for establishing critical limits, which are usually expressed in terms of parameters for temperature, humidity, water activity, pH, salt concentration and chlorine levels. The limits might be regulatory, such as the requirement for poultry to be chilled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or they could be established by the plant, based solely on recommendations of experts in the field or on scientific literature. Critical limits vary according to the plant and the process, Swanica says. She adds that each processing plant establishes monitoring requirements for each one of its CCPs and identifies corrective action to be taken when monitoring indicates a deviation from critical limit. When a deviation occurs, plant officials can adjust the process, hold and destroy all products that can`t be brought into compliance, or develop an alternative process to use the material. Plants have to develop some kind of recordkeeping system to document its HACCP system and verify that the controls are working.
Inspectors, however, remain skeptical about HACCP`s effectiveness. “Each plant does its own HACCP plan, but there is nothing specifically required for them to do. They can use only one critical control point in their plan and it would still satisfy the HACCP rules,” Wurtele charges, saying he and his peers have become quality control monitors instead of inspectors.
FSIS has been lately faced with helping to solve a national health dilemma: a string of recent recalls due to foods contaminated with listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that has caused 16 deaths and more than 70 cases of illnesses nationwide.
Swanica points out HACCP includes random salmonella testing because its detection usually means other bacteria are also present. The agency says it will continue testing slaughterhouses and grinding establishments to ensure they meet standards, and that it will publish an annual report on the testing.
Reducing the threat
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman recently told those gathered at the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association`s annual convention in Atlanta that by using modern scientific testing methods, “we are succeeding in reducing the threat of foodborne illness for American families.”
He cited statistics on salmonella, reporting that FSIS has preliminary findings gathered from nine months of data collection in nearly 300 large plants using HACCP since January 1998. He says that the first data released for ground beef samples showed 7.5 percent tested positive for salmonella before January 1998, while only 4.3 percent tested positive after HACCP implementation.
FSIS claims new data for chicken and pork continue the positive trend. In a January statement on its web site, (www.fsis.usda.gov/ ophs/salmdata.htm) the agency said that 20 percent of sample chicken carcasses tested positive for salmonella before HACCP, compared to 10.7 percent after implementation; likewise, 8.7 percent of sample swine tested positive before HACCP, versus 6.2 percent after.
But those numbers are suspect, claims Felicia Nestor, food safety project director for the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C-based whistleblower`s group. She says her organization requested data under the Freedom of Information Act, because “even as late as January, we could see that they only analyzed 97 plants out of more than 300 that started on HACCP in January 1998. By October, they only had successfully tested less than a third, and on this they base their self-congratulations on the success of HACCP,” Nestor says. According to Wurtele, the inspectors` union also questions the FSIS`s salmonella sampling results, and wonders why testing was only conducted during the nine months of the year that are generally not the months when the highest contamination results are found.