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FSIS Highlights 2021 Accomplishments in Protecting Public Health

Washington, DC, Jan. 21, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) today announced key achievements for 2021 that highlight progress in its mission to prevent foodborne illness and protect public health.

New Approach to Salmonella in Poultry

The hallmark of 2021 was the announcement of the agency’s new approach to Salmonella in poultry. The initiative, launched in October, casts a wide and inclusive net in the pursuit of innovative approaches to pathogen control that is responsive to evolving food safety hazards and embraces the latest science and technology. The goal is to develop a stronger and more comprehensive framework to address Salmonella in poultry that will more effectively reduce human illness related to these products.

“As a public health agency, we can and must find a more effective way to reduce foodborne illness,” said Sandra Eskin, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. “We’ve embarked on a collaborative effort to revise how we reduce Salmonella illnesses associated with poultry products.”

In the span of three months, the agency initiated several conversations and events with stakeholders that would consider what a “systems-based” approach to Salmonella control with multiple, complementary control points, might look like for the agency. FSIS charged the National Advisory Committee for Microbiological Criteria in Foods (NACMCF) to advise on how FSIS can build on the latest science to improve its approach to Salmonella control. FSIS also held a series of stakeholder roundtables to generate open discussion on the topic. Meanwhile, the agency is inviting poultry slaughter and processing establishments to submit proposals for pilot projects that will evaluate different control strategies for Salmonella contamination in poultry products. The agency will be accepting proposals into the new year and will be holding its next set of roundtables in 2022.

Supporting Small and Very Small Establishments

Recognizing how critical small and very small plants are to the Nation’s food supply, USDA worked to strengthen and build fairer markets for these small businesses through critical infrastructure and business investments in 2021. The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), and the Egg Products Inspection Act (EPIA) provide that mandatory inspection costs be borne by the United States, except for the costs of overtime and holiday pay. To alleviate the financial burden this may put on small and very small plants, including those that have adapted to the pandemic by extending their hours of operation, FSIS has reduced overtime and holiday inspection fees for small establishments by 30 percent and very small establishments by 75 percent. FSIS has been implementing this provision of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) since July 2021. The ARP provided FSIS $100 million over 10 years to subsidize these fees for small and very small meat, poultry, and egg products establishments. By December, 2,421 small and very small establishments were receiving reduced rates with approximately $17.4 million in fee reductions. Throughout the year, FSIS holds monthly, interactive town hall calls for establishments where small and very small plants can ask questions and receive answers from FSIS leadership. Additional forms of outreach in 2021 included four roundtable discussions for small and very small plants in California, North Carolina, Georgia, and Wisconsin, as well as technical support through agency subject matter experts and promotion of tools such as the Small Plant Help Desk, askFSIS, and industry guidelines.

Labeling

As the public health regulatory agency responsible for ensuring that the U.S. commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged, FSIS must keep up with new challenges and opportunities presented by technology and globalization.

In December 2021, the public comment period closed on FSIS’ advance notice of proposed rulemaking pertaining to the labeling of meat and poultry products comprised of or containing cultured cells derived from animals subject to the FMIA or the PPIA. The notice, released in September, outlines issues and questions on the topic while also discussing how FSIS would generally evaluate labels for these products if they are submitted for FSIS evaluation before the agency completes rulemaking. As we enter 2022, FSIS will continue to review the comments, which will be used to inform regulatory requirements to ensure the accurate and truthful labeling of food made from cultured livestock and poultry cells.

Knowing that consumers depend upon accurate, transparent labels to obtain important information about food, USDA also initiated a top-to-bottom review of the “Product of USA” label. In July 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced a final rule to strengthen its enforcement around the “Made in USA” claim. Secretary Vilsack issued a statement that day noting the Department’s commitment to ensuring that the “Product of USA” label for meat products reflects what a plain understanding of those terms means to U.S. consumers. The comprehensive review of the “Product of USA” label has begun and will continue into 2022.

Response to COVID-19

Among its key achievements this year, the agency continued to adapt to challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic by prioritizing the health and safety of its employees while ensuring that it can continue to meet its food safety mission. While FSIS requires its employees to wear a mask in federal buildings, regulated establishments, and government owned or leased vehicles regardless of vaccination status, the agency also issued mask requirements for establishments where FSIS provides inspection services. Effective August 25, 2021, FSIS required all FSIS-regulated facilities to have their employees and/or contractors wear masks if FSIS inspection program personnel are present and when the criteria laid out in the CDC’s guidance are applicable to the county where the establishment is located. The agency continued to hold monthly town hall calls to proactively provide guidance for employees and industry. The agency will continue to focus on employee safety as it navigates the impact of COVID-19 and its variants as we enter the new year. The agency is proud of the 33 FSIS employees, who in support of the federal COVID-19 vaccination campaign led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) earlier this year, vaccinated nearly 400,000 people across six clinics located in Maryland, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. 

Fostering Diversity, Equity, and Opportunity

FSIS made strides in its efforts to foster an inclusive workplace where individuals are respected, trusted, valued, and work together collaboratively to achieve agency goals. FSIS is dedicated to recruiting and retaining excellent talent to carry out the agency’s mission to protect public health. FSIS takes pride in its diverse workforce and is deeply committed to upholding and promoting the values of equity, inclusion, and equal opportunity among the workforce and those the agency serves. FSIS hosted a three-day virtual Diversity and Inclusion Conference, which offered training on diversity and inclusion, conflict management, health, and wellness to all employees.

In terms of recruitment, FSIS continued to leverage the use of the direct hire authority approved by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to hire Food Inspectors (FIs) and Consumer Safety Inspectors (CSIs), which will continue into 2022. In FY 2021, FSIS hired 538 FIs and CSIs, with an additional 777 FIs and CSIs in the pre-employment stages of hiring. During 2021, FSIS also took key steps to recruit and retain Public Health Veterinarians (PHVs), who are a vital part of the FSIS food safety mission. The agency’s recruitment incentives provide $20,000 to participating PHVs divided over 4 years, continuation of a paid move to their first duty station, continuation of the Adel A. Malak Scholarship program, a Student Loan Repayment Program, and other retention incentive programs that provide additional biweekly or annual payments based on an employee’s years of service.

Collaboration with Public Health Partners

Much of the agency’s efforts to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply involves the continuous collaboration with public health partners, including the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Not only do these partnerships improve interagency coordination of federal food safety efforts, but they also help to address gaps and priorities regarding food safety data. In July 2021, USDA and FDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding to permit more efficient use of resources and contribute to improved public health protection. FSIS expects this to enhance the exchange of information related to dual jurisdiction establishments and operations, which are subject to the jurisdiction of both agencies. FSIS also hosted meetings of the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods and the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection.

USDA touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. In the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production, fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to safe, healthy, and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural America, and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America. To learn more, visit www.usda.gov.

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CONTACT: USDA FSIS
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
press@fsis.usda.gov

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