US government said new rules would "prevent thousands of illnesses each year"

US government said new rules would "prevent thousands of illnesses each year"

The US government has introduced voluntary reforms to inspections of poultry facilities in the country.

The US Department of Agriculture said the changes were "a critical step forward in making chicken and turkey products safer" for consumers.

However, consumer groups criticised the move, while industry representatives had some concerns.

Under the new rules, poultry companies will have to meet new requirements to control salmonella and campylobacter, the USDA  said.

Processors must take measures to prevent contamination from the bacteria, rather than addressing it after it occurs.

All poultry facilities will be required to perform their own microbiological testing at two points in their production process to show that they are controlling salmonella and campylobacter. The new tests will be in addition to the USDA's own testing, which the Food Safety and Inspection Service will continue to perform.

The USDA is also introducing an optional "new poultry inspection system", in which poultry companies must sort their own product for quality defects before presenting it to government inspectors. The USDA said the system would allows for FSIS inspectors to focus less on routine quality assurance tasks that have little relationship to preventing pathogens like salmonella and instead focus more on strategies that are proven to strengthen food safety.

"The United States has been relying on a poultry inspection model that dates back to 1957, while rates of foodborne illness due to Salmonella and Campylobacter remain stubbornly high," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "The system we are announcing today imposes stricter requirements on the poultry industry and places our trained inspectors where they can better ensure food is being processed safely. These improvements make use of sound science to modernise food safety procedures and prevent thousands of illnesses each year."

However, consumer organisation the Center for Science in the Public Interest criticised the reforms.

It said the new system "privatises many poultry inspection activities and reduces the number of government inspectors in the nation’s poultry processing plants".

CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal said: "In its desire to save some US$9m next year, the USDA missed the boat on designing a scientific approach to modernizing poultry inspection. With more than 600 people sick from the Foster Farms outbreak alone, this is hardly the time to reduce USDA’s oversight of the poultry industry."

Mike Brown, president of The National Chicken Council, which represents the US chicken industry, said the rules would "modernise our poultry inspection system in order to improve food safety – the top priority for our industry".

However, Brown said the USDA's decision to continue to cap the maximum line speeds in plants at 140 birds a minute meant "politics have trumped sound science".

"It is extremely unfortunate and disappointing," Brown said. "Fifteen years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute. The rule also goes against global precedent, in which the limiting factors for line speeds are the ability to meet food safety standards, keeping workers safe, and the capability of the equipment to run effectively – not government regulations. Broiler plants in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Belgium and Germany, among others, all operate at line speeds of 200 or more birds per minute."