Fighting foodborne illness: sweeping changes proposed for the poultry industry

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday proposed sweeping changes in the way chicken and turkey meat is processed that should reduce foodborne illness, but could force meat companies to make extensive changes to their operations to do.

Despite decades of efforts to reduce illnesses caused by salmonella in food, more than 1 million people become ill every year, and almost a quarter of these cases are linked to turkey and chicken.

As it stands, consumers bear a large part of the responsibility for preventing illness from raw poultry by handling it carefully in the kitchen – following standard advice not to wash raw chicken or turkey (it spreads the bacteria) , and when preparing meat and cooking use separate utensils to 165 degrees. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service wants to do something about this, starting with the farmers who raise the birds and working through the processing plants where the meat is made.

Your food poisoning target: Of the more than 2,500 Salmonella serotypes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified three that cause a third of all human illnesses from chicken and turkey products. The agency proposes to limit their presence on poultry products.

In 1994, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service took a similar step, declaring some strains of E. coli as contaminants in ground beef and embarking on a testing program for the pathogen that has significantly reduced meat-borne disease.

In a bid to stem salmonella outbreaks in poultry, the agency is proposing a regulatory framework that would include testing incoming flocks of chickens and turkeys for the bacterial disease that commonly affects the intestinal tract and affects 1.3 million people annually with symptoms including diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, which can last for several days. Officials hope that testing chickens and turkeys before they enter the slaughterhouse will encourage farmers to adopt practices that reduce the bird’s bacterial infection before they reach the point of meat processing.

A second measure would require increased surveillance for Salmonella during processing, by sampling for the bacteria at several stages within the processing plant. The third major change would be to set a maximum level of bacterial contamination and possibly limit the three specific types of salmonella that can make people sick. Meat that would exceed the limits or that contained banned salmonella species could be withheld from the market.

The FSIS will begin a lengthy process of proposing new rules by holding a public hearing on November 3 to gather input from the poultry industry and others. The government’s goal is to come up with new rules and regulations that could be introduced starting next year and finalized within two years.

The agency said it takes time to implement these ideas and get input before firm regulations are set. The agency hopes to begin rulemaking in mid-2023 and complete it in two years, said Sandra Eskin, the USDA’s assistant undersecretary for food safety.

“We know this is quite a pivotal point in the agency’s historical development, and for that reason we try to be as transparent, deliberative and collaborative as possible,” Eskin said.

Consumer advocates have been pushing for such measures for poultry products for years. Eskin said President Joe Biden’s administration is pushing to make the changes.

Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, one of the nation’s leading advocates representing consumers disgusted by food sources, welcomed the agency’s actions, which recognize that controlling salmonella in animals before it reaches processing plants is critical to reducing it of meat contamination. He said FSIS should be bold and look at salmonella as an adulterant – a contaminant that can cause foodborne illness – in all meat as a starting point.

“What they have outlined is something truly unique that they have never done before, but it has no timeline or regulations that would show that it will actually be achieved. That’s my criticism,” he said.

The industry has been unable to meet government targets to reduce foodborne Salmonella infections for several decades. Meeting the new 2030 target of 11.5 infections per 100,000 people per year would require a 25% reduction, Eskin said.

According to Eskin, the industry managed to reduce the number of salmonella-contaminated chicken samples by 50% from 2017 to 2021, but the rate of salmonella disease has not decreased significantly over the past two decades. More than 23% of food-borne Salmonella infections can be traced back to the consumption of poultry, with almost 17% from chicken and more than 6% from turkey.

The North American Meat Institute, the trade association representing U.S. packers and processors of beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey, said efforts to tackle salmonella are a high priority.

“We are encouraged to see FSIS going through the regular rulemaking process. We look forward to reviewing the proposal and providing industry comments,” said Julie Anna Potts, Group President and CEO.

A spokeswoman for the National Chicken Council, which represents the companies that raise and process chickens for meat, said they support efforts to reduce salmonella on chicken products.

“We are concerned that the proposed framework currently lacks industry input, research and data to support it,” said Ashley Peterson, the group’s senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs. Fighting foodborne illness: sweeping changes proposed for the poultry industry

Dais Johnston

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