New rules won't hurt Md. Poultry producers expect to see only a minimal price rise

'Regulations not an issue'

Packers must use 'Hazard Analysis' at various points

July 15, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The sweeping changes in the federal government's meat inspection program announced recently by President Clinton are not expected to have a major impact on Maryland's giant poultry industry or the price consumers pay for chicken at the grocery store.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said last week the new regulations should add only about one-tenth of a cent to the price of a pound of beef or poultry.

Jacque Knight, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Agriculture Department, said the testing program will not eliminate all bacteria on chickens going to market.

She said the regulations are "designed to alert us when the process at a plant is not working well and needs corrective action."

Knight warned, however, that if a poultry plant is unable to reduce its salmonella level to the industry average of 20 percent of all chickens processed, the government would halt its inspection action, forcing the plant's closure.

Dick Auletta, a spokesman for Perdue Farms Inc., in Salisbury, said the impact of the new regulations on the state's largest poultry processor will be minimal, and any increase in retail prices would be small.

Under the new rules, packers and slaughterhouses will be required to establish a system known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), identifying each point and potential problem in the process where contamination can occur -- such as cutting, grinding and overheating -- and developing steps to prevent it.

Auletta said a Perdue plant in Accomac, Va., was used as a pilot in developing the HACCP testing system. "That plant is already up to speed, and we expect to have all our other plants up to speed by March," he said.

He said that Perdue and most other large poultry processors have already installed the equipment required to reduce bacteria, such as the mechanical inside-outside washers that gut chickens and clean them without passing bacteria from one chicken to the next along the assembly line.

"For us the new regulations are not an issue," said Auletta. "We have already taken most of necessary steps to meet them." He said Perdue's salmonella level was already below the industry average, but he declined to disclose the percentage level.

Poultry represents the largest segment of Maryland's agriculture industry, said M. Bruce West, head of the state Agriculture Department statistical service.

He said growers in the state produced 285 million broilers in 1994, valued at $433 million.

"It's the state's most important commodity," said West. "It represents about one-fourth of all sales at the farm level each year."

As for the Delmarva region, West estimated that growers produced 575 million broilers last year and were paid $962 million, about a third of the retail value.

The average wholesale price of Maryland broilers has already shown some fluctuation in recent months. In April, the price that processing plants charge retailers was 50 cents a pound, according the state statistical service. It rose to 70 cents a pound in mid-June and was down to 62 cents last week.

The new regulations will become effective this week when they are published in the Federal Register. They are scheduled to take effect in stages, some immediately and some over the next two to three years.

They represent the most dramatic changes in the meat inspection systems since the federal Meat Inspection Act was passed in 1907.

The regulations will require processing plants to test for E. coli, which indicates fecal contamination and can be deadly in some forms.

The inspection for salmonella at various stages of the process will be handled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Consumer groups have been pressing for changes in the government's meat inspection system since a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria traced to under-cooked hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants killed several children in the Pacific Northwest in 1993 and sickened hundreds of others.

Pub Date: 7/15/96

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