Analysis

Report Recommends Better Use of Data to Update Approach to Meat Inspections

A new U.S. Department of Agriculture rule, effective October 20th, is intended to modernize some aspects of poultry inspection. However, as The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recommend in a new report, U.S. policymakers should begin a much broader, data-driven effort to update the laws that define USDA’s inspection authority.

“The federal meat and poultry inspection system remains bound by antiquated laws that do not address current foodborne hazards,” said Sandra Eskin, director of food safety at Pew. “USDA’s piecemeal approach to modernizing inspection underscores the need for policymakers to consider a more comprehensive update to these laws.”

The United States’ meat and poultry inspection system still operates much as it did a century ago, when it was created in response to the deplorable slaughterhouse conditions exposed in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. This system focuses considerable resources on naked-eye examinations of animals just before and after slaughter, but relatively few on measures that can detect Salmonella, Listeria, and other invisible microbiological contaminants—the cause of most foodborne illnesses.

Two million foodborne illnesses annually

Data suggest that more than 2 million cases of foodborne disease in the United States each year are associated with meat and poultry consumption.1 The annual cost of these infections has been estimated at almost $7 billion.2 Even so, the actual number of cases and costs are likely much higher because most of those sickened never report their illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that for every Salmonella infection reported to public health authorities, more than 29 other cases are not.

In recent years, rates of foodborne illness have risen or stayed the same for several of the pathogens of greatest concern in meat and poultry, according to the CDC. For example, the rate of Campylobacter infections was 13 percent higher in 2013 compared to 2006-2008.

The Pew and CSPI report, Meat and Poultry Inspection 2.0, compares the U.S. system with those used in five other countries, based on a survey of inspection authorities in each nation. Scientific reviews of inspection practices by the European Food Safety Authority are examined as well.

Among other findings, this analysis revealed that:

  1. Robust data collection, analysis, and sharing are fundamental components of efforts to transform existing inspection practices into a modern, risk-based, and science-based inspection system.
  2. None of the countries deploys meat inspectors to every meat and poultry slaughter and processing plant every day, as is done in the United States.
  3. Some countries use private or quasi-governmental inspectors in their meat and poultry inspection systems. Others have turned certain aspects of meat or poultry inspection completely over to industry.

Based upon these findings, Pew and CSPI recommend that:

  1. As has been done by the European Union and the United Kingdom, the United States should commission comprehensive scientific assessments to evaluate its existing meat and poultry inspection approaches and alternatives for modernization.
  2. While the United States has made efforts to improve data collection related to meat and poultry production and testing, a more significant effort should be undertaken, including analysis of results and real-time data sharing.
  3. As has been done by the European Union and Australia, the United States should evaluate incorporating food chain information and comprehensive data management and review into its meat and poultry inspection system.

Endnotes

  1. John A. Painter et al., “Attribution of Foodborne Illnesses, Hospitalizations, and Deaths to Food Commodities by Using Outbreak Data, United States, 1998–2008,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 19 (2013): 407–15.
  2. Michael B. Batz et al., “Ranking the Disease Burden of 14 Pathogens in Food Sources in the United States Using Attribution Data from Outbreak Investigations and Expert Elicitation,” Journal of Food Protection 75 (2012): 1278–91.

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