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Meat and Poultry Inspection: Background and Selected Issues

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) must inspect most meat, poultry, and processed egg products for safety, wholesomeness, and labeling. Federal inspectors or their state counterparts are present at all times in virtually all slaughter plants and for at least part of each day in establishments that further process meat and poultry products. Debate has ensued for decades over whether this system, first designed in the early 1900s, has kept pace with changes in the food production and marketing industries. Among the issues that the 110th Congress could be asked to examine are:

Is enough being done to address longstanding concerns about naturally occurring microbiological contamination? In 1996, FSIS added a sweeping new system known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) -- essentially plant-specific contamination prevention plans -- on top of the traditional "sight-, smell-, and touch-based" inspection system. Past bills, proposing to clarify USDA's use of pathogen performance standards, could be reintroduced.

Does FSIS have adequate funding and resources, and/or should industry pay more for inspection? FSIS inspection is mainly funded through USDA's annual appropriation. Congress has denied successive Administrations' proposals to impose new user fees. Separately, USDA announced that in April 2007, it would start introducing a new "risk based inspection system" aimed at shifting some existing resources from processing plants (not yet slaughter facilities) and products that pose relatively lower safety risks to others posing relatively higher risks.

Should state-inspected meat and poultry products be allowed in interstate commerce? Bills to lift the longstanding ban on such shipments could be offered.

Should USDA be given more authority to recall suspect meat and poultry products? Bills to broaden recall authority also could be offered, as in the past.

Is legislation needed to improve the ability to trace animals, meat, and poultry products? Past bills, to require a system for tracing all federally inspected meat and poultry from the live animal through processing to the ultimate consumer, or, alternatively, to establish differing nationwide livestock identification systems for animal disease purposes only, could be reintroduced.

Should Congress further address animal welfare? Proposed bills (H.R. 661; S. 394) are pending that would require the immediate euthanization of nonambulatory livestock and that would ban their use for human food. Separately, H.R. 503 and S. 311 would ban horse slaughter for human consumption.

Should U.S. food safety responsibilities be consolidated under a single agency? Companion bills did not advance in the 109th Congress, but there is continued interest in them in the 110th Congress, where H.R. 1148 and S. 654, to create a single food agency, have been introduced.