During a hearing yesterday with Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety Brian Ronholm, members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee addressed many of the controversies currently surrounding the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

The proposed modernization of the poultry inspection rule was top of the list for discussion. While several House members, including Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-AL) and Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA), asked about various aspects of the rule, it was Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) who attacked the rule for various food safety and worker safety concerns.

The program is “based on faulty data” that affect food safety and worker safety by, among other things, allowing industry to develop its own performance standards or limits on microbial contamination, Rep. DeLauro said. Ronholm responded by defending the program, just as Secretary Vilsack has done in recent weeks.

In his opening statement, Ronholm acknowledged that last summer’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the inspection pilot program found “limitations in the agency’s data analyses.” He asserted that it should be noted that the report was not an indictment against the poultry slaughter rule, but “in fact, GAO described the pilot project, and the effort to deploy inspection resources more effectively, as a positive step.”

Ronholm stated a number of times throughout the hearing that FSIS will “establish and monitor” its own performance standards on the poultry industry. Any self-regulating standards companies set would be entirely separate from the inspection rule, he said.  He added that the performance standards for chicken parts will be released by the end of this fiscal year. The standards for ground poultry are expected to take a little longer, according to Ronholm.

Other topics discussed during Thursday’s hearing were support for smaller slaughterhouses, the automatic shutoff of water in plants, the catfish inspection rule, antibiotic-resistant microbials, and inspector overtime hours.

In addition, a group of 11 House members, led by Reps. DeLauro and Louise Slaughter (D-NY), have asked the leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees to include language to bar Chinese-processed chicken from federal food programs (National School Lunch, School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Food and Summer Food Service Programs) in USDA’s fiscal 2015 budget.

As for timing on appropriations, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) said this week he would like to have all of the bills through committee by July 4, with the House scheduled to be off June 27 through July 8 for its Independence Day recess.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) has said she expects her panel’s markup of spending bills to stretch over the next several weeks and finish in July.

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