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Improved Oversight, Training Urged to Strengthen Food Safety, Says GAO.

Inspectors at meat and poultry plants need more oversight and training to strengthen USDA's new food safety system, according a recent GAO study. Meat and poultry plants underwent a new food safety system mandated by USDA beginning in January 1998, a system that will be fully implemented for all plants by next month. Concerned about the implementation of the food safety system, a bipartisan group of congressional leaders requested GAO to review HACCP (hazard analysis critical control points) in plants across the United States. The study was requested by Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Reps. Joe Skeen (R-N.M) and Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio).

The lawmakers asked GAO to: 1) determine whether the system adopted by USDA is consistent with the seven HACCP principles; 2) evaluate whether the HACCP training program for USDA inspectors is adequate and science-based; 3) determine if there is an adequate dispute resolution process between plants and USDA under the new food inspection system.

GAO said generally inspectors received the training needed to oversee plants' implementation of HACCP programs. However, the agency says many inspectors responding to its nationwide survey reported that they would benefit from refresher courses. Several aspects of the training curriculum and program need to be clarified and reinforced, said GAO. Weaknesses in the training program -- such as whether inspectors have the authority to ask for changes to a HACCP plan, when they should collect Salmonella samples, and when it is appropriate to issue noncompliance notices affect USDA's ability to ensure the consistent and effective oversight of the HACCP system, GAO said.

USDA's dispute resolution process provides industry with an appropriate mechanism to appeal inspectors' enforcement actions. However, incomplete and inconsistent information preclude USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service from effectively analyzing the types of HACCP-related noncompliance actions that are appealed or the extent to which plants appeal inaccurate noncompliance notices, said the report.

GAO made recommendations to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to provide clarification and additional training for inspectors in: 1) inspectors' roles, responsibilities and authorities for reviewing and verifying HACCP plans; 2) inspectors' responsibilities for microbial sampling and the frequency of salmonella testing; and 3) inspectors' responsibilities for how and when to file noncompliance notices and how to select the correct trend indicators.

By sheer coincidence, GAO released the report at the same time a federal judge in Dallas was ruling that USDA may not have the authority to shut meat packing plants found to harbor dangerous pathogens. In the case, Dallas hamburger processor Supreme Beef Processors, Inc. maintains it has the right to continue its operations after USDA withdrew inspection services because a company plant failed three consecutive salmonella tests. After a hearing last week, the judge granted a preliminary injunction to allow Supreme Beef to continue its operations until the case goes to trial. Supreme Beef disagrees with USDA's test results showing the extent of contamination. In one test, USDA showed 11 of 53 samples testing positive for salmonella, while Supreme's test show only four of 53. Five is the maximum number allowed. Observers see the case testing USDA's HACCP system and the department's recall authority. Couple this with GAO's report pointing to weak training of inspectors and the confusion over the correct frequen cy of microbial testing for salmonella and Supreme Beefs case may be made.
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Publication:Food & Drink Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 20, 1999
Words:551
Previous Article:GRAPEVINE: News About People.
Next Article:USDA Approves Irradiation of Raw Meat; Food Groups Urge Education Campaign.
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