On October 14, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced new guidelines for in-plant video monitoring at meat and poultry establishments.  The new guidelines are drafted with the stated intent of strengthening both food safety and humane animal handling practices. The guidelines do not require video monitoring. The guidelines, however, do allow the use of video or electronic monitoring to meet FSIS record-keeping requirements.

It was actually video footage of beef production at a Westland/Hallmark plant that surfaced in February, 2008 that raised very serious concerns about humane handling. The video detailed the abuse of “downer” cattle. The video, and subsequent USDA investigation led to the recall of 143 million pounds of meat, the largest in U.S. history.

The apparent goal of FSIS’ new guidelines is too reduce the likelihood of such occurrences, and monitor compliance with existing food safety regulations:

This document provides guidance to industry on the use of video or other electronic monitoring or recording equipment for monitoring operations and facilities for various purposes, including monitoring product inventory, conducting surveillance of establishment premises in a voluntary food defense plan, using a systematic approach to ensure that livestock are handled humanely, or ensuring that poultry good commercial practices are followed.

FSIS suggests ways in which the use of video might improve compliance with humane handling regulations:

Video or other electronic monitoring or recording equipment could provide an establishment with continuous information on what is occurring at all times with humane handling at the establishment, freeing the establishment from having to rely on spot checks. Also, the possibility of multi-dimensional views of an establishment’s processes with these technologies can bring together information that bears on humane handling, food safety, compliance, and product quality at one time. Thus, video or other electronic monitoring or recording equipment can provide new information for establishments to use to improve process control. The information gathered can also be used by establishments to train their employees.

Additional guidance is provided on how video recordings can be used to meet various FSIS record-keeping requirements. There is also guidance on increasing biosecurity at production facilities through the use of video surveillance.

The guidelines are in draft form while FSIS seeks approval of the document from the Office of Management and Budget. The FSIS is currently accepting comments on the draft guidelines.