Twenty-five years ago, the FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) issued its landmark final rule. Known as PR/HACCP, the “Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point” was created to lower the risk and numbers of pathogenic microorganisms forming on meat and poultry products. The rule also reduces the incidence of foodborne illnesses that result from consumption of these animal products. Finally, the rule offered a new framework that modernized the current system of inspection for meat and poultry products. The goal was to reduce the potential of contamination through proactive means rather than reactively. According to FSIS Administrator Paul Kiecker, “Food safety is an ever-evolving process. HACCP marked a dramatic change in food safety and how FSIS approached its mission of keeping food safe and the role of inspecting processing establishments.”
The HACCP plan includes sanitation requirements that were motivated in part by the FSIS addressing the issue of harmful bacteria found on raw meat and poultry products. These bacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7, continue to be major food hazards that are associated only with meat and poultry. A study released in 2012 revealed that the HACCP final rule had achieved its goal. Statistics collected as part of the study research showed that Salmonella contamination on broiler chicken carcasses dropped 56 percent between 1995, before the HACCP final rule was announced, to 2000. In the same timeframe, the number of foodborne illness cases resulting from Salmonella on broilers had dropped by 190,000.
1993 was a turning point for the federal government in how it addressed pathogens and outbreaks. An E. coli O157:H7 outbreak traced to a fast-food restaurant in the Pacific Northwest selling ground beef resulted in the deaths of four children. The outbreak also caused close to 200 others to develop serious ongoing health issues. The majority of those affected by this outbreak were less than 10 years old. The FSIS was already working on regulations that would require a systematic approach to food safety. These measures were to be used in food production and included preventative measures that would reduce the risks of illness to consumers.
FSIS officials and the public requested different methods to ensure and improve food safety. The events of 1993 meant that the previously standard ways had to change. What resulted was a science-based inspection system that caused a noticeable shift in the USDA’s regulatory philosophy. Instead of inspecting finished products for biological, chemical, and physical hazards, the HACCP rule required establishments to use preventative measures to avoid these hazards in the first place. Part of this process included the development and implementation of written sanitation standard operating procedures. Added to this were FSIS pathogen reduction performance standards for Salmonella, and record-keeping procedures. And finally, the PR/HACCP final rule altered and defined the roles of both the establishments and the federal government in the food safety inspection process. Establishments were given the flexibility to make decisions on food safety specific to their particular establishment. The previous system, which was command-and-control based, required approval of production-associated decisions from a government inspector. With HACCP in place, the industry is completely responsible for the decisions made related to food production and the execution of the decisions. The FSIS’s role under HACCP is to conduct inspections to verify compliance with food safety standards, and enforcement to address non-compliance.
“I had the privilege to see first-hand the most significant change at that time for both FSIS and the industry,” says Paul Wolseley an Executive Associate for Regulatory Operations in the FSIS Office of Field Operations. “By moving away from a command-and-control methodology of conducting inspection to a science-based approach for controlling food safety hazards in meat and poultry products, we greatly enhanced our ability to protect public health.” He added, “The shift to HACCP paved the way for innovations that continue today.” William Shaw, the FSIS Executive Associate for Laboratory Services weighs in on the changes made to microbial testing programs, saying, “The HACCP program was a paradigm shift for the Agency.” He goes on to state, “The need for verification led to the largest scale microbial testing program by the Agency. It’s evolved into the FSIS annual sampling plan we issue today.”
Since 1996, the HACCP regulations have been updated to address more establishments and other food products. In 2020, the regulations covering egg product inspections were amended so that egg processing plants must now develop and implement HACCP procedures. This will align them with other FSIS-regulated products. According to Agency Administrator Kiecker, “The evolution of our policies and inspection programs means FSIS can be more proactive instead of reactive when it comes to stopping an outbreak.” It is because of this ever-changing landscape that the FSIS keeps promoting and maintaining the highest standards found in the food production process. In doing so, the Agency has kept its mission of protecting the public through food safety as its top priority.
Food safety is a serious matter. It continues to be now that we are twenty-five years past the implementation of the HACCP final rule. The safe production and handling of food consumed by the public is the key behind the HACCP regulations. Foodborne illnesses can cause death, and outbreaks as recent as 1993 provided evidence that supported a change in the regulations. With new guidelines that are more science-based, the number of incidents related to bacteria and foodborne illnesses has dropped significantly. Plus, with better food safety standards in place, consumer confidence has increased and restaurants and food production facilities have seen some very good years in business. With these guidelines in place, and a proper inspection and enforcement program, the HACCP standards continue to lead the way in maintaining food safety for the US public.