Fernando Sampedro, who holds a PhD in Food Technology from the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota (US), and consultant in risk assessment and food safety, as well as Marcos Sánchez-Plata, who holds a PhD in Food Science and Technology from the University of Nebraska and Associate Professor and founder-coordinator of the Poultry School, Meat School, and Inspector School programs at Texas Tech University (US), analyzed the new scenario after the recent modernization of the US food inspection systems in an interview with ChileCarne’s team. They also explained the current food safety requirements in the USA for imports of poultry meat and processed products.
1 What are the current food safety requirements in the United States for poultry imports?
MS: Chile’s national system ensures the US that it controls the food safety and animal health requirements for meat products in a manner similar to theirs. As long as the relevant Chilean authority, i.e., the Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG) guarantees the same degree of protection that the US system provides, it will be guaranteed that Chilean products can be exported to the US. This is called “equivalence.” It is a global process negotiated on a country-to-country basis, initially remotely or through documents, and later on with in-person audits of the plants. The US Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIF) determines whether SAG’s system has an equivalent level of control and food safety protection that meets their requirements. If something goes wrong with a Chilean product entering the US, FSIS will not complain to the particular plant; rather, it will request an analysis of the causes and mitigation measures from SAG, as the delegated compliance guarantor of the US requirements. Hence, SAG must ensure that Chilean plants comply with the requirements to export to the US market.
FS: The country as a whole obtains the approval, not a specific plant, and equivalence is by country. For example, if I guarantee that Chile has a system equivalent to that of the US, after approval, it becomes a country brand.
2 Regarding the recent modernization of the US food inspection system, what are the new issues to consider in terms of health regulations and precedents?
MS: In 1999, when HACCP began, there was an experiment called HIMP (HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project). Certain plants joined the program to identify how to make the inspection process more efficient, with official veterinary inspectors mainly dedicated to supervising the food safety program and reviewing the plants’ documents and data rather than inspecting the birds on the line. The proposal was for the plant’s staff to perform some of the inspector’s duties online under the inspector’s supervision. This change meant that the official inspector started focusing on food safety issues, trends, and more complex plant issues rather than on the daily minutiae of inspection. The idea is that if these processes work, there is greater optimization, and if the microbiological performance of processes provides the same level of protection, the plant can speed up the line. The incentive for plants to join this program was not only to optimize their processes, but also to increase the line speed to boost the yield. Therefore, plants need to demonstrate that higher process speeds provide the same level of food safety protection. The law states that an inspector can visually supervise up to 35 chickens per minute. Initially, the industry installed more inspection stations to increase the speed of the line and reach 140 chickens per minute. This system has been working relatively well with poultry since 2015. The issue is that increasing the speed of the line means there could be more occupational accidents and diseases among inspectors, and a food safety issue could then become an occupational health issue. We are currently addressing this while laboratories and universities are helping companies demonstrate their situation for these two parameters.
FS: We went from the traditional figure of the inspector to a supervisor. There is an issue of trust: I transfer part of the inspector’s role to the company itself; it is a shared role between the company and the official system. The inspector is in charge of everything, and that is not the case in the US. And then there is the issue of food safety, ensuring that process lines protect the health of the consumer.
3 Should slaughter plants add these new requirements to their quality systems to keep exporting to the US?
MS: We need to bear in mind that when the animal health equivalence with the US was obtained, Chile adopted a similar system based on the US model. Now the US has a system that categorizes companies into three levels and it is published online: the ones that fully comply are category 1, if the company is between 50% and the limit, it is category 2, and if the company is above the limit, it is category 3. If a buyer wants to have a suppliers program to buy from the best performing plants, they will check the category of the poultry supplier. Undoubtedly, it is an incentive for the industry to improve. Hence, the industry is always trying to comply with the standards that currently include two pathogens for poultry: Salmonella and Campylobacter. Consumer groups want to go further because they think these categorizations are not enough, and that the number of diseases caused by these pathogens has not declined. They made two requests: for some thirty Salmonella serotypes to be identified as adulterants, which means a mandatory recall of the affected product. Up until now, people have been able to buy raw chicken with Salmonella at the supermarket and there has been no problem at all, as it is not considered adulterant, and it is also subject to a cooking process with clear handling instructions on the label. But, if it is one of the thirty salmonella serotypes that consumers want to include, the product may no longer be marketed. Europe did this but only for two salmonella serotypes, and consumers in the US want to do something similar. The second request has to do with Salmonella and Campylobacter virulence, which is more difficult as consumers want to see if they can find certain virulence genes that could trigger a more serious disease. The problem is that the gene might be present in bacteria but not necessarily active. These two proposals are currently being analyzed. That is for poultry. For pork, soon we will have similar new microbiological standards. Hence, we already have the information and an idea of where the limit is going to be set. That is why we are heavily working with pork. I do not know if the scenario will change much for poultry in terms of new microbiological standards.
FS: I would like to add a couple of things. Clean labels: consumers want less additives, and for chicken, pigs, and other animals to be bred humanely, outdoors, without cages, running happily in the fields. These are important aspects today, so the effort must focus on trying to set standards for what constitutes humane breeding with high standards of animal welfare. On the other hand, there is the issue of antibiotics. “I do not want antibiotics,” “I do not care if they protect the animals’ health.” However, we should emphasize that antibiotics are necessary, used wisely, of course. But now, nobody wants antibiotics. And finally, the carbon footprint. There has been great investment in green technology and obviously efforts must also be made to show that production does not impact the environment.