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 what is haccp?

In 1998, the government unveiled a radically redesigned system of meat inspection called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP). Previously, federal meat inspectors had been limited to visually inspecting carcasses in processing plants; the new system placed the responsibility for developing a comprehensive safety-procedures program on the companies themselves, and required that they conduct scientific testing of bacteria levels in the meat. The inspectors are to monitor the companies' compliance with their own plans. The jury is still out on whether the HACCP system is working to reduce food-borne illness levels, and the reallocation of inspection responsibility has raised tension between some plant owners and inspectors. Here's an overview of how the new system works, and some of the critiques.

In 1998, after two years of negotiation between the meat industry, consumer groups, and Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced a dramatically new system of meat inspection. "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point," or HACCP (pronounced "hassip"), was the first major meat inspection overhaul in America since the early 1900s when Upton Sinclair's expose The Jungle provoked a closer look at meat-industry practices.

Under the aegis of the USDA, the "poke and sniff" method emerged as the first comprehensive American meat-inspection system employed in slaughterhouses around the country. USDA inspectors were given the authority to physically monitor all carcasses and cuts of meat as they moved down the slaughter line. Inspectors would literally touch, smell, and prod the meat to test its wholesomeness.

The "poke and sniff" system was designed to prevent rotten, blemished, or damaged meat from entering the food supply. Cuts of meat with lesions, growths and abrasions were routed out by inspectors, who used their sense of smell and touch to distinguish contaminated meat from clean cuts. But the "poke and sniff" system had its drawbacks, most troubling of which was the inability of the system to detect invisible pathogens and microbes.

After the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, in which four children died and 700 people fell ill, both consumers and politicians lobbied for a revised system that would pay greater attention to microbiology. The common consensus in food safety was that invisible germs posed as great a danger to consumer health as visible contamination such as legions and diseased parts, and that the "poke and sniff" system was neither stringent nor scientific enough to ensure the safety of American meat.

Acknowledging the need for a more science-based approach, the USDA adapted a system of meat inspection originally developed by NASA to ensure the wholesomeness of astronauts' food. This new system looked at food safety and inspection as an engineering issue: NASA identified all of the possible points where a germ or a pathogen could enter the food in a spacecraft. They then designated these points "critical control points" and monitored them carefully.

When NASA's method of food-safety engineering was adapted for use in the meat industry, the slaughterhouse took the place of the spacecraft, and the astronaut became the American consumer. The USDA made plans to analyze all of the critical control points where germs could enter the system, and in order to monitor contamination, they introduced a science-based program of microbial testing. Instead of just conducting a physical "poke and sniff" test, under the new HACCP system, inspectors were mandated to make sure meat plants tested carcasses for invisible pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella. This was a major change in the philosophy of meat inspection: Meat plants were ordered to conduct their own microbial testing, and the responsibility shifted from USDA inspectors to the meat plant owners and operators. The meat industry was for the first time legally obligated to actively participate in food-safety and inspection programs.

Though HACCP is generally acknowledged to be an improvement on the old system of meat inspection, not everybody has been satisfied with its implementation. Both inspectors and consumer groups have voiced concern that too much power has been granted to those in the meat industry -- that "the fox is guarding the chicken coop," in other words, and that meat inspectors have been stripped of the power to watch and touch meat on the line. To inspectors critical of HACCP, the acronym has come to stand for "Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray."

Under the HACCP system, there is no single way to inspect a plant, no pre-ordained template to ensure the wholesomeness of meat. Instead, each meat packing and processing plant is required to create and implement their own HACCP system, which they submit to the USDA for approval. Once approved, this plan is monitored by USDA inspectors on the ground. Instead of the old "poke and sniff" method, inspectors now make sure that meat plants follow their HACCP plan.

According to figures gathered by the Centers for Disease Control, the incidence of salmonella in the U.S. is slightly lower under the HACCP system than it was under the old system. Elsa Murano, undersecretary of food safety at USDA, says that HACCP "brings the system up to the 21st century. It was what we needed to do. It's improved food safety in meat and poultry."

But critics argue that the CDC figures show a decline in salmonella emerging before the full implementation of HACCP occurred. They argue that the meat industry cannot be trusted to test and regulate itself. According to former meat inspector Patsy McKee, "In theory, HACCP is great. But these plants are not going to regulate themselves. Plants are not effectively implementing their HACCP programs."

For more information about HACCP and its implementation, go to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service website.

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