Washington, DC - Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is expanding its resources for small plants by launching a virtual representative that provides continual access to information. This new tool will allow users to receive up-to-date information on frequently asked questions and communicate directly with technical experts from FSIS' Small Plant Help Desk.
The Virtual Representative for small plants is another way FSIS is developing new and innovative ways to meet the needs of its customers. The Small Plant Help Desk is a mission-critical tool for FSIS to help owners and operators enhance their food safety practices and strengthen public health protection.
"FSIS is committed to providing helpful and timely information to small plant operators across the country, who play an essential role in building strong local food economies," said Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza. "We anticipate that inspection program personnel and the regulated industry, including small and very small plant operators and the business partners who support them, will benefit most from this valuable resource."
FSIS inspection personnel are assigned to establishments nationwide to ensure the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, correctly labeled and packaged. With more than 90 percent of the 6,389 FSIS-inspected plants considered small or very small operations, the Small Plant Help Desk provides useful information and technical assistance to more than 2,000 callers annually. The Help Desk consists of FSIS employees who are subject-matter experts with recent experience working in meat, poultry or processed egg facilities. The Small Plant Help Desk, as required by the 2008 Farm Bill, continues to serve as a "one-stop shop" for small plant owners and operators with valuable assistance. This virtual help desk addition will allow customers to receive information at all hours on any day of the week.
In addition to operating a telephone and virtual help desk, FSIS prepares various informational materials to assist small plants, such as how to implement plans to prevent or deal with food product and food defense issues, publishes compliance guidelines to help small plants comply with new or modified FSIS regulations, and hosts workshops on new topics of interest.
This new virtual tool will benefit customers in every time zone in the United States and its territories. It joins two successful virtual representative services that FSIS offers – askFSIS for policy-related questions and Ask Karen for consumer food safety handling questions. With these three virtual portals, FSIS continues to modernize its service to customers and stakeholders.
Resources like the Small Plant Help Desk contribute to USDA" Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative (KYF) which coordinates the Department's work to develop strong local and regional food systems. For example, Link Lab Artisan Meats credits the Small Plant Help Desk with helping to get its sausage processing facility up and running in compliance with federal food safety regulations.