Yesterday my family and I read this article on food safety which was syndicated to our local paper from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It begins provocatively:

One-third of a second.

That’s how long a federal inspector will have to examine slaughtered chickens for contaminants and disease under new rules proposed by the federal government.

In the ensuing 1300 words of the main story that was syndicated to our paper, plus 1100 words of sidebars not included, the reporter — Tim Eberly — explores how the proposal will shift responsibility for hands-on inspection from federal inspectors to poultry plant workers. It’s a portrait of yet another disturbing lapse of oversight in our national food safety system. That much was clear to us when we finished the article. But we were left wondering: why would the USDA so flagrantly subvert its mission?

From the article:

The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees poultry plants, believes the changes would “ensure and even enhance the safety of the poultry supply by focusing our inspectors’ efforts on activities more directly tied to improving food safety,” FSIS [the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service] spokesman Dirk Fillpot said in a statement.

The agency says it wants inspectors to focus on issues that pose the greatest health risks to the public.

That still doesn’t really explain the USDA’s rationale, though. So I spent five minutes searching online and discovered the following facts:

  • The USDA has a blog.

  • To which USDA officials frequently contribute.

  • Including Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, who is not just an FSIS spokesperson but in fact the offical who oversees the agency’s policies and programs.

On April 19, 2012, Dr. Hagen cited the rationale that was missing from Tim Eberly’s story (bold emphasis mine):

Today, USDA announced an extension to the public comment period for a proposed rule that would modernize the poultry slaughter inspection system.  This new plan would provide us with the opportunity to protect consumers from unsafe food more effectively.  We recognize that this proposal would represent a significant change from the current system and has sparked a debate on how poultry is inspected.  We also value the different opinions being expressed about the proposal and have extended the public comment period to ensure all sides are presented in this debate.

It may surprise you to learn that the USDA has been inspecting poultry in largely the same way since the 1950′s. So, while our scientific knowledge of what causes foodborne illness has evolved, our inspection process has not been updated to reflect this new information. Under this modernization proposal, significant public health benefits will be achieved and foodborne illness will be prevented by focusing our inspectors attention on activities that will better ensure the safety of the poultry you and your family enjoy.

One thing we have learned from the last few decades of advances in food safety technology is that the biggest causes of foodborne illness are the things you don’t see like the harmful pathogens Salmonella and Campylobacter. As part of a continual effort to improve our inspection system, FSIS is proposing to move some inspectors away from quality assurance tasks—namely checking carcasses for bruises and feathers—to focus on food safety tasks, such as ensuring sanitation standards are being met and verifying testing and antimicrobial process controls. This science based approach means our highly-trained inspectors would spend less time looking for obvious physical defects and more time making sure steps poultry processing facilities take to control food safety hazards are working effectively.

The increased emphasis on food safety tasks proposed under the rule is consistent with the agency’s focus on foodborne illness prevention.  Instead of focusing on quality assurance, inspectors will now be able to ensure plants are maintaining sanitary conditions and that food safety hazards are being reduced throughout the entire production process.

Under a pilot program started in 1999, known as the HACCP Inspection Models Program, 20 broiler plants have served as “trial plants” for this new proposal. Test results from the poultry produced in those plants shows lower rates of Salmonella before it goes to the grocery store. The data and test results from this pilot program demonstrate that quality assurance tasks, such as checking for bruises and blemishes, do not provide adequate food safety protections as once was thought over 60 years ago.

Over the years we have seen — again and again — the need to modernize to keep pace with the latest science and threats. This poultry slaughter modernization proposal is about protecting public health, plain and simple, and I encourage stakeholders and the public to read the proposal and then let us know what you think.

Why couldn’t Tim Eberly have found, quoted from, and cited the USDA’s authoritative statement? Why couldn’t the editor who syndicated it into my local paper have added value by doing so?

There’s an analog to food safety: information safety. Reporters (food producers) and editors (inspectors) are chained to a fast-moving production line. But science-based methods can help keep us safe. Use the precious few seconds available to find, and report, authoritative sources.