(Adds details, comment from industry group)
By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON, July 31 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Thursday reforms to decades-old processes for inspecting poultry facilities in a bid to cut down on the number of foodborne illnesses, but dropped an industry-backed plan to speed up production.
Under the new rule, poultry producers would be required, among other things, to perform microbiological testing at two points in their production process to prevent salmonella and campylobacter contamination.
The plan is designed to encourage a pro-active prevention approach instead of simply addressing contamination after it occurs. The move could prevent as many as 5,000 foodborne illnesses each year, USDA officials said.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the plan "imposes stricter requirements on the poultry industry and places our trained inspectors where they can better ensure food is being processed safely."
The agriculture department said maximum line speeds for chicken and turkey processing plants operated by companies such as Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride, Sanderson Farms and Foster Farms would remain capped at 140 birds per minute "in response to public comment."
Tom Brown, president of the National Chicken Council, said not allowing faster speeds meant "that politics have trumped sound science."
A successful U.S. pilot program had been conducted with plants operating at 175 birds per minute, and broiler plants in several other countries "operate at line speeds of 200 or more birds per minute," Brown said.
Under a separate, voluntary system, companies would sort their own birds for quality defects before presenting them to agricultural department personnel.
As companies become more proactive, the number of government inspectors would be cut.
"By allowing plant employees to conduct some preliminary sorting duties, federal inspectors will be freed to further verify testing on the spot, examine sanitation standards and enforcing safeguards throughout a processing plant," said Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation.
The salmonella bacteria is estimated to cause about 1.2 million illnesses in the United States each year, with about 23,000 hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Campylobacter is the second most reported foodborne illness in the United States.
California's Foster Farms recently recalled 170 different chicken products linked to an outbreak of salmonella that caused hundreds of illnesses.
Noting that incident, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, said reducing government inspectors was a bad decision. "This is hardly the time to reduce USDA's oversight of the poultry industry," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal.
The rules will be published in the Federal Register and posted online at www.fsis.usda.gov/poultryinspection. (Reporting by Ros Krasny; Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler and Diane Craft)