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New regulations for poultry inspection from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) may end its long, acrimonious struggle to modernize the existing status quo. Given the competing interests surrounding the initiative, compromise was inevitable—and compromise is precisely what everyone got. As previously proposed, the rule would have mandated universal changes in the inspection system. The proposed rule directed all poultry slaughterers to initially examine and screen birds for cosmetic and other nonsafety-related defects—traditionally the role of USDA inspectors—and maintained the core government responsibility to identify problems associated with animal disease and other forms of product contamination. This system has been in effect—and successful—on a voluntary basis for more than a decade within the context of so-called pilot programs.

Intense resistance was mounted to the proposed rule by a coalition of consumer and labor interests, with the opponents reading from a modified version of a well-established script. For decades, any proposed or potential changes to FSIS’s labor-intensive inspection system have met effective opposition, anchored in the contention that there is a direct correlation between the number of government employees stationed in a food processing plant and the resulting level of consumer protection. This locked in a physical presence, both at the level of slaughter and at further processing, that was more substantial than that extended to most food production systems receiving FDA oversight.

While the regulated industry maintained broad support for the changes, its support was muted and was rooted in the proposition that the industry would defer to the government’s regulatory expertise and the underlying strength of the data supporting any such changes.

FSIS’s leadership persisted for years through this minefield and generated a document that, like most compromises, includes something for everyone to complain about. Unlike the original proposal, the new system is voluntary instead of mandatory. As such, companies are free to use the older, more labor-intensive system. The final rule also dials back proposed limits on maximum line speeds while, at the same time, allowing such speeds to be maintained at the grandfathered pilot establishments. Whether this dichotomy can be maintained and justified over time is an open question. The final rule also includes new requirements for additional controls over potential microbiological contaminants, a core-food safety concern that is not susceptible to detection by the naked eye, and the rule has further provisions designed to enhance worker safety.

Given that the new system is not mandatory and that some vocal opponents continue to resist any change, even on a voluntary basis, it is difficult to predict the ultimate effect of the new regulation. What is easier to suggest is that deeper and more fundamental change in the FSIS inspection model remains elusive—even as the FDA attempts to implement the ambitious agenda of the Food Safety Modernization Act on a budgetary shoestring.