Observe, judge, act — Veterinarian offers practical tips for reducing carcass condemnations
Poultry processors and regulators have the same objectives — minimize chicken condemnations and maximize food safety. Working as a team is the best way to safeguard consumer health and maintain profitability at the processing plant.
“It should not be an adversarial or confrontational relationship,” said Douglas Fulnechek, DVM, senior technical service veterinarian for Zoetis. “You both have a role to play.”
Fulnechek spent 28 years with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) before entering private industry. He shared his insights into the regulatory and practical aspects of condemnation at the 2016 “Young Chicken Gross Pathology Workshop” held recently at the Georgia Poultry Laboratory in Gainesville, Georgia. Zoetis sponsored the event.
Poultry carcasses are inspected during processing for signs of disease. In some cases, these conditions may result in carcasses being condemned because they are deemed not suitable for human consumption. To ensure that’s the case, FSIS requires condemned carcasses to be denatured using a colored dye so humans will never consume them.
Fulnechek said several health conditions can lead inspectors to condemn a carcass, including:
- Septicemia/toxemia and airsacculitis, which are the two most common condemnations.
- Other conditions that affect the whole carcass like tumors, ascites, keratoacanthomas and other degenerative processes.
It would be difficult to find a processor who has not asked, “What gives the government the right to take my chickens?” The answer, Fulnechek explained, lies in Mugler v. Kansas, a case that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1887. According to the court:
“All property in this country is held under the implied obligation that the owner’s use of it shall not be injurious to the community.”
“Once that carcass goes into the condemned barrel — even if it was a perfect carcass — it doesn’t get to come back,” Fulnechek said. “However, decisions [to condemn carcasses] have to be supported by scientific fact. Congress laid out the rules that FSIS has to follow: ‘Such condemnations shall be achieved through uniform inspections and uniform applications.’”
The word “uniform”, of course, is subject to interpretation. This is why the Poultry Products Inspection Regulations spell out condemnation requirements as clearly as possible. “I encourage the industry to look up these regulations, carefully read them and have a discussion with the veterinary supervisor in the plant, because they all have a similar theme,” Fulnechek said.
This is where the human element comes into play. FSIS inspectors first make their observations, then make a judgment based on what they saw and take appropriate action, if necessary.
Inspectors have a checklist of what they are looking for, including:
- Body condition (plumpness, muscling, keel prominence, cachexia)
- Tissue hydration
- Cardiovascular system
- Gastrointestinal tract
Fulnechek elaborated on the checklist. “You do it this way every time,” he said. “You go through this system so that you don’t overlook something.”
Questions that get asked:
- You talk about the body condition. Is it plump? (“Juicy” was one of the terms that my FSIS inspectors used.)
- Look at the muscling, the prominence of the keel. Determine if the bird has been off feed. Has it lost some muscle mass? Was it properly hydrated?
- Examine the color and composition of the fat. Can you see changes such as serious atrophy of the fat?
- Almost all liver colors are normal, except for the green ones.
- The spleen: What kind of changes, mottling or other changes, might you see?
- The cardiovascular system: Is there an enlarged heart?
- The gastrointestinal tract: Is there some evidence of chronic enteritis?
“All of those things go into making this group of observations that you then use to make an interpretation,” he told the audience of poultry veterinarians, processing plant managers and veterinary students.
He also cautioned that inspectors have leeway to go beyond this checklist as warranted.
“There is an allowance for disease conditions and the stage of the diseases for the veterinary supervisor in the plant to make some judgment,” he said. “That judgment still has to be based on the regulations. Is this product adulterated because of whatever physiological state or disease state that it’s in?”
Armed with these observations, inspectors then look at what Fulnechek called “the weight of evidence” to do one of the following:
- Pass the bird, because it’s wholesome and unadulterated.
- Pass the bird with a restriction. “For example, it has fecal contamination in it, so it needs to be washed out. It’s going to the knife salvage table. Or maybe it’s got airsacculitis and needs to be vacuumed, or it’s got intraclavicular airsacculitis and it needs to go to the offline airsac salvage station.”
- Retain the carcass for veterinary disposition. “I’m encouraging both parties to consider this option more than it’s being used. It is my position — and it was the position when I was an inspector in charge of my assignment — that all suspect cadavers should be hung back for veterinary disposition.”
- Condemn it outright due to whole-carcass changes or systemic carcass changes.
Nevertheless, it is the right and even the responsibility of processors to appeal decisions if they believe inspectors incorrectly applied the science. How inspectors rule can have a big impact on a processor’s bottom line, Fulnechek said, adding that the difference between 0.15 percent and 0.25 percent condemnation rate could be worth more than $700,000 annually.
“That’s a steep loss for processors,” he said, “but inspectors are not focused on a processor’s bottom line — nor should they be. Inspectors are focused strictly on food safety and compliance.
“The point is that everyone recognizes that human beings are involved in making these assessments and both parties need to listen to and respect the other’s point of view,” Fulnechek added. “If you, as a poultry processor, think the judgment is off-target, you need to try to get it corrected through an appeal. Likewise, if there’s a problem, you need to work with your veterinarian and producers to address it.”
In the end, the scientist concluded, everyone involved must understand what’s at stake and work toward the same goal of safe, affordable poultry and consumer confidence.
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