In the Bell & Evans poultry plant in Pennsylvania, hundreds of workers wearing blue smocks and hairnets deftly wield sharp knives on 180,000 carcasses a day. Standing among them: federal inspectors who eye every chicken coming down the line.
They’re part of an army of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors on the front lines safeguarding the quality of all U.S. poultry, meat and processed eggs. In addition, in facilities where animals are slaughtered, a USDA veterinarian is also on duty full time — or the line comes to a halt.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) watches over 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including seafood, produce and dairy. Together the USDA and FDA efforts cost $2 billion a year, but they’re worth it: The American inspection system sets a gold standard for the rest of the world.
The FDA also holds medicines and medical devices to exacting standards. Other federal safety agencies guard consumers at home and abroad from defective products ranging from boats to trucks to toys. The standards are the same whether the product is headed to domestic or foreign markets.
“There’s no two-tier system here,” said Michael Taylor, a former head safety administrator for both USDA and FDA.
When the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls a hazardous product — such as flammable pajamas or toys with lead paint — it oversees its destruction or repair. Manufacturers may not ship the goods to another country.
At Bell & Evans, inspectors eye the live chickens trucked in from hatcheries, then inspect the carcasses and entrails. Each package bears a circular USDA “inspected” stamp, including the boxes of chicken feet bound for Hong Kong, where they are a delicacy. Cattle and swine are inspected with similar rigor.
That USDA mark also identifies the plant the food came from. Package labels must list all ingredients.
Science helps prevent problems
The inspections began after a public outcry in 1906 about unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry. The inspection regimen has gotten increasingly strict and more sophisticated ever since.
But back in 1978, when Alfred Almanza began inspecting cattle in a small Texas slaughterhouse, it still “was basically poke and sniff” to tell if an animal was diseased.
Now, as head of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Almanza and his team of 6,300 inspectors run lab tests to detect microbial contaminants. After a deadly E. coli outbreak from undercooked hamburger sold by a fast-food chain in 1993, it mandated testing for that pathogen and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), a scientific, risk-assessment approach to preventing food-borne illnesses.
Many food manufacturers had already embraced the HACCP method on their own. It involves determining in advance the critical places where contamination could occur, establishing acceptable limits of bacteria, conducting constant monitoring, and knowing precisely what to do when problems are detected. NASA employed such a system in the 1960s to ensure astronauts’ food would be safe to eat.
Science offers today’s inspectors tools their predecessors lacked, including genome sequencing that can rapidly identify the cause of food-borne illnesses and help disease sleuths figure out where an outbreak originated.
Microbiologist Robert Brackett, director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology, likens it to the FBI’s fingerprint database.
“The technologies for detecting pathogens have gotten much, much better,” he said. “We’re finding more cases but smaller outbreaks of illness.”
“Today,” Almanza said, “everything is rooted in science.” His inspectors have broad authority to force manufacturers to remove food they suspect is contaminated — and they do. Last year, USDA inspectors condemned 12.2 million kilograms of poultry and nearly 227,000 kilograms of cattle, swine and other livestock.
The FDA also has moved aggressively “to a preventive approach” that features HACCP, said Mark Abdoo, FDA’s acting deputy commissioner for global regulatory operations and policy. “It’s a much better way of operating.” A recent law, the Food Safety Modernization Act, strengthened the agency’s enforcement powers.
It isn’t just the presence of inspectors that drives manufacturers to instill a strict food-safety culture in every part of their operations.
In an era when news of recalls or shutdowns spreads online like wildfire, safety is “a matter of brand protection,” said Marianne Rowden, president of the American Association of Exporters and Importers. If consumers are sickened, “the hit to their brand is greater than any penalty the government could assess.”
How tough are U.S. standards?
Among the world’s toughest. The U.S. and Europe both have strict regulations and regulatory agencies. Europe and the United Kingdom established independent food-safety agencies after the outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1990s.
But the U.S. and the EU draw the line in different places on what they allow.
The U.S., for instance, has zero tolerance for the lethal listeria bacteria in cooked, ready-to-eat food, while Europe allows very small amounts. European standards, by contrast, are less tolerant about pesticide residues on food or animal feed. (The Environmental Protection Agency regulates pesticides in the U.S.)
Beef hormones are permitted in the U.S. and banned in Europe. To minimize the risk of salmonella, the U.S. mandates that eggs be washed; Europe doesn’t.
Kevin Kenny, a founder of Decernis, a Washington firm that helps companies navigate the food regulations of 180 countries, said, “The world is a lot safer place on the food front than it was 20 years ago.”
Consumers spooked by minuscule amounts of “nasty substances” in food — measured in parts per million or even billion — don’t understand how little risk that poses. “A part per million is a molecule in a swimming pool,” he added.
Large recalls of ground beef contaminated with E. coli, once frequent, plummeted after hazard analysis and controls became the norm. “That’s been a huge success story,” said Seattle attorney Bill Marler.
Back in Pennsylvania, Bell & Evans owner Scott Sechler spent $9 million installing a conveyor belt system that air-chills poultry for three hours rather than disinfecting carcasses in a water and chlorine bath. Chilling takes far longer and costs more, but produces tastier chicken, he said.
The birds are still coated with a vinegar-based antimicrobial, but there’s no cross-contamination. “This is a much cleaner system,” said Margaret Roles, the plant’s quality-assurance manager.
Bell & Evans has its own testing lab and disinfects the production line after every shift. Carcasses come down the line rapidly, but “when you know what a good chicken looks like, you can see a bad one a mile away,” says Joseph Crisafulli, a USDA frontline supervisor.
Bell & Evans’ chickens are raised on hormone-free feed with no antibiotics. A quarter are certified organic, signifying they were raised under less stressful conditions, with natural lighting in the coop and access to exercise yards.
The extra care comes at a price, but plant owner Sechler says it’s well worth it: “I make the most expensive chicken, and we can’t run this place fast enough to meet the demand.”
This article was originally published on February 23, 2017.