The Importance of Food Inspection on Meat and Poultry

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different meats that will be use for food inspection

Historically, food inspection was limited to visual examinations to observe any defects. Since the 1990s, however, safety protocols have evolved. Today, in addition to visual inspections, government mandates require meat and poultry to be tested for various bacteria and other pathogens.

The responsibility for food inspection on meat and poultry in the United States falls under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The FSIS contains a team of 9,400 federal employees, and some states have independent inspection programs that must comply with FSIS guidelines.

This article provides an overview of how food inspection of meat and poultry works.

The Role of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service

Under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FSIS aims to ensure that meat, poultry, and eggs are safe, “wholesome,” and properly labeled.

Maintaining minimum food safety and quality standards is imperative for not only nutrition but also the prevention of disease in the population as a whole. As such, the FSIS conducts inspections at slaughter and processing facilities to ensure compliance with regulations related to food safety and quality.

These inspections include verifying humane handling practices during the slaughter process as well as monitoring food storage, temperature controls, and workers’ rights.

Thanks to the brave work of animal welfare advocates, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) was recently passed to help ensure that animals are treated humanely from birth through the end of their lives, including slaughtering practices. Any detected inhumane acts are said to be in violation of United States public policy.

Humane treatment is relevant to food safety in a number of ways. Notably, by keeping animals healthy, you can avoid the proliferation of disease. For example, nonambulatory cows (those who are immobile and unable to walk on their own) present a higher risk of BSE. BSE is short for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, also known as Mad Cow Disease.

Meat Inspection Processes

poultry farm owner doing antemortem inspection

For all hours that a plant is operational, a federal inspector must be present to oversee the condition of the animals and the overall sanitary condition of the premises where animals are being slaughtered. Specifically, inspectors are tasked with observing the animals to look for any signs of abnormal conditions, including disease and contamination.

Antemortem Inspection

Antemortem inspection means before-slaughter inspection. This type of inspection is conducted on the live animals before they are slaughtered. This step in the inspection process is important because it is used to identify any animals that may pose a threat to food safety or have signs of illness.

Postmortem Inspection

An inspection that occurs after the animal has been slaughtered is referred to as a postmortem inspection. This inspection occurs after an animal has been slaughtered. Here, the carcass would be inspected for any signs of disease, contamination, or defects.

The inspector will look at tissues, internal organs, and other body parts, noting any irregularities, defects, or signs that the animal is not fit for human consumption.

Handling Specified Risk Materials (SRMs)

butcher removing specified risk materials from cattle meat

SRMs are higher-risk “materials” in cattle that are not allowed for human consumption. This includes various body parts like the brain, eyes, and spinal column in cows over 30 months of age. For cows of all ages, the small intestine is also classified as SRMs and is not allowed in the human food supply.

The reason that SRMs are considered high risk is that they have a higher likelihood of harboring infectious agents. To ensure compliance with rules regarding SRMs, these body parts must be removed and segregated from the rest of the carcass during processing.

Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP)

The Good Manufacturing Practice distinction is reserved for companies that adhere to certain quality assurance standards. You may see companies label their products with the letters GMP or cGMP to denote that their products maintain a level of consistency based on strict specifications.

GMP can be used across various products, including cosmetics and supplements, as well as meat and poultry. For the food industry, the facility, hygiene practices, and storage and handling undergo strict scrutiny.

USDA Meat Grading

pack of beef meat with USDA meat label

The USDA provides guidelines for both the inspection and grading of meat and poultry. While inspection is mandatory under the law, grading is a voluntary practice. The grading is a measure of quality, and it includes various factors depending on whether the grading is for meat or poultry.

Some of the factors that may be considered when determining a grade include:

  • Tenderness
  • Juiciness
  • Flavor
  • Yield
  • Shape
  • Flesh content
  • Presence of defects

You’ve probably seen grading on supermarket shelves with distinctions like prime, choice, select, etc. These are for cattle. Poultry also has letter grades, like A, B, and C.

Applying for a Federal Grant of Inspection for Meat and Poultry Establishments

To be legally allowed to sell a meat or poultry product across state lines, a producer must apply for and be approved for a Federal Grant of Inspection.

Several steps are involved in the application process, including those listed here.

  1. Obtain an approved water source letter. Verifying that you have safe and clean access to water is an imperative first step.
  2. Obtain a sewage system letter. A properly working sewage system is also necessary to ensure good hygiene.
  3. Prove that your facility meets regulatory performance standards. Specifically, your facility must comply with the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). This body contains regulations for a variety of industries, including meat and poultry. The CFR outlines the standards you must meet for interstate commerce.
  4. File an application for inspection. Once you are confident that your facility meets the required standards, you can submit a formal application to the appropriate regulatory body. This will typically be the FSIS, though you may apply directly through your state, depending on where you are located.
  5. Obtain approved labels and/or brands. If you are processing meat or poultry at a level that requires commercial labeling, you must also get approval in this area. You must be able to demonstrate that your labels accurately represent each of your products, provide the necessary information, and meet product-specific standards.
  6. Provide a written standard operating procedure for sanitation. In addition to having all of the sanitation infrastructure in place, you will also need to put sanitation SOPs in writing. At a minimum, the procedure will need to outline your specific plan for maintaining a clean and sanitary environment at your facility.
  7. Provide a written hazard analysis and HACCP plan. Short for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, this plan includes identifying the steps where contamination could occur. This is referred to as a “critical control point,” and it requires careful recordkeeping along with site-specific standard operating procedures for sanitation. You can expect USDA inspectors to check your records to verify a plant’s compliance.

As you go through the steps to get a Federal Grant of Inspection, it’s also a good idea to engage in long-term thinking about how you plan on maintaining ongoing compliance. If you plan on expanding your facility over time, keep in mind regulatory standards regarding separate processing areas to prevent cross-contamination.

To expedite the application process, it can also be helpful to maintain open lines of c\ommunication with the appropriate regulatory bodies and be sure to address inquiries and requests for follow-up information promptly.

If you’re seeking a metal detector or x-ray system to help with your food inspection process on meat and poultry, TDI Packsys offers numerous products that can fit right into your production line. Check out our selection today.

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