HOLCOMB, Kan. (KNWA) — Tyson Foods is looking to change the way beef is inspected at its Holcomb, Kan., beef plant, wanting company personnel to take over identifying and trimming isolated defects in beef carcasses.
Tyson Fresh Meats personnel sent a waiver letter to the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service on March 11.
“This regulatory waiver request proposes company team members take over post-mortem pre-sortation activities, including identification and trimming of isolated defects, and identification of conditions that would require additional disposition by the Public Health Veterinarian (PHV),” the letter states. “The purpose of the waivers request (sic) is to explore and implement alternative methods of post-mortem inspection which provide equivalent outcomes to current inspection methodologies.”
Approval of the request would enable Tyson employees to be the first to look at beef carcasses instead of Department of Agriculture inspectors.
An FSIS spokesperson released the following statement to KNWA:
FSIS received a letter from Tyson in March 2019 requesting to use science based food safety modernization techniques. While the establishment is closed, FSIS is not evaluating the waiver request.
FSIS is always looking to improve inspection methods using the best science available. FSIS decides whether to grant requests for waivers based on proposals and documentation submitted by establishments to demonstrate that the proposal does not adversely affect the safety of the product, jeopardize the safety of FSIS personnel, interfere with inspection procedures and that issuing the waiver will not conflict with the provisions of the Federal Meat Inspection Act or other regulatory requirements. Under the law, only federal inspection personnel can inspect animals, carcasses and parts. Also by law, only federal inspection personnel can apply the USDA mark of inspection to a meat product, indicating that it has been inspected and is fit for human consumption. Furthermore, the US has the safest food supply in the world and our inspectors are in the slaughter plants everyday conducting carcass by carcass inspection, that will not change under any waiver.
FSIS inspection personnel staffing configurations are not determined by companies. FSIS determines the appropriate federal inspector staffing based on plant specifications. This is currently the only beef facility requesting a waiver.
FSIS has been very clear in our intentions to modernization how we inspect. Over the last seven years we have proposed and finalized changes to modernize our inspection processes.
Tyson’s waiver request has been met with some criticism. An NBC News article quotes USDA’s former chief veterinarian, Pat Basu, who said that Tyson factory workers without adequate training might miss critical signs of disease, drug injections or bacterial contamination, and potentially remove evidence of said issues before USDA inspectors examine the carcasses.
“They are bypassing safeguards. It could be devastating for the whole country — you cannot turn it over,” NBC quotes Basu as saying.
However, Gary Mickelson, Tyson’s director of Media Relations, said Tyson’s primary concern is food safety.
“We’re focused on continuous improvement in all aspects of our business, especially food safety, which is critical to our success. Our request to the USDA is about exploring a new, more modern way of inspecting beef. It’s similar to the modernized inspection systems USDA has approved for poultry and is considering in pork,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson said the new system, if implemented, would result in more people focused on food safety.
“Our company would expand our food safety staff at the plant, freeing up USDA inspectors to focus on other important food safety matters,” Mickelson said. “While USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) may decide to use slightly fewer government inspectors, the agency would continue to conduct 100 percent of the inspections of the cattle both before and after harvest.”
Tyson’s beef plant sustained massive damage in a fire on Aug. 9.
“We plan to repair and reopen it, however, it is currently unclear when. We’re continuing to pay workers while the plant is down,” Mickelson said.