The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) today said it will launch a new risk-based inspection system in April, initially targeting meat processing plants at 30 locations across the country.
The 30 locations include about 254 meat, poultry and egg processing plants, said USDA's under secretary for food safety, Richard Raymond. The number represents about five per cent of the US' estimated 5,300 processing plants.
The shift in strategy means processors with poor food safety standards will face tougher and more frequent inspections. Those that have good records could see the number cut.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) plans to expand the system to another 150 locations by the end of 2007.
"Everyone agrees that not all plants and all processes pose an equal risk to public health and that FSIS should have the ability to shift resources as needed to more proactively protect the public from foodborne illness from meat, poultry and egg products," Raymond said in a statement.
The FSIS will use information regularly collected by inspection staff. It will take into account the relative risk of what each processing plant produces and how each plant is controlling risk in its operations,
The FSIS will then allocate inspection resources to those processing plants needing it the most, while continuing daily inspection at all other facilities.
The level of inspection at a processing plant will be based on a number of objective factors such as public health related inspection noncompliances and FSIS microbiological testing results.
The information will be updated each month so that inspection resources can be adjusted as conditions change, Raymond said.
"To continue to prevent foodborne illness, we have to improve our prevention capabilities, not just respond quickly after an outbreak occurs," Raymond said. "Our inspectors visit every one of these plants every day and that won't change. What will change is we will no longer be treating every plant like every other plant in terms of its adverse public health potential and we will start using the information and the inspection expertise we already have in ways that better protect consumers."
The FSIS will schedule a series of technical briefings with industry to discuss the use of production volume, industry data, non-compliance records, expert opinions and foodborne disease attribution data as part of the risk-based inspection system.
Raymond stressed that the change in strategy will not result in reducing the number of inspectors. It is also not an attempt by the agency to cut costs, as some have charged.
"In the coming months, we intend to conduct a second expert elicitation to further refine our ranking of products," he said. "Among the changes in the second elicitation will be asking experts, including those with public health expertise, to consider the severity of potential illness in determining a product's risk, which was suggested by various groups."