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USDA ‘framework’ intended to reduce salmonella-related illness

Poultry processors could be required to test birds for salmonella bacteria before slaughter and for so-called indicator organisms during processing under a USDA proposal aimed at reducing food-borne illnesses in raw poultry. Under the framework, the Food Safety and Inspection Service might create an enforceable standard to prevent sale of poultry with high levels of the bacteria.

The broiler chicken industry said the government was rushing ahead without data: “This isn’t science, it’s speculation,” said Ashley Peterson, head of regulatory affairs at the National Chicken Council. The Consumer Federation of America said the USDA was “moving forward on a regulatory fix that has been needed for decades.”

Nearly a quarter of the 1.35 million cases of salmonella illnesses in people each year are attributed to poultry consumption, according to the CDC. Around 26,500 people are hospitalized each year due to salmonella. Most people with an infection suffer diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. Symptoms last for four to seven days.

USDA deputy undersecretary Sandra Eskin said USDA has identified strategic actions that were likely to drive down salmonella infections related to poultry. “We know that salmonella in poultry is a complex problem with no single solution,” Eskin said in a statement.

The three major points in the framework were testing of flocks for salmonella at the processing plant before slaughter, enhanced “process control monitoring” by the processor with USDA verification, and an enforceable standard on bacteria in the final product.

With the framework, the USDA would move toward risk-based regulation and away from the current approach of hazard-based regulation, said Craig Hedberg, a professor at the University of Minnesota school of public health. “Focusing on levels of salmonella and highly virulent strains of salmonella rather than just the presence or absence of salmonella should reduce the number of illnesses associated with poultry,” said Hedberg in a USDA release.

In a 15-page description of the framework, the FSIS said its regulations have reduced the incidence of food illnesses due to E. coli and listeria, but “we have not seen the same level of success” against salmonella. In five years ending in 2021, the presence of salmonella in chicken samples tested by the USDA declined 50 percent, but the U.S. rate of salmonella infections from all sources remained consistent. The agency said its goal was to reduce salmonella infections 25 percent by the end of this decade.

The USDA said it might require processors to test flocks for salmonella when they arrive at a plant. “Under this approach, the flock would have to meet a predetermined target for salmonella at receiving, which my be industry-wide or establishment-specific, and the establishment must demonstrate that its subsequent process will be effective in reducing salmonella so that the product will meet the final product standard,” said the FSIS.

“This proposed framework builds on HACCP,” the hazard analysis critical control point system now in use to identify potential points of contamination and take preventative measures, said the explanation. “FSIS may modify the existing requirements for indicator organism testing for process control and establish additional parameters to better define the required analysis of the data.”

To prevent poultry products with high levels of salmonella contamination or containing specific types of the bacteria from entering the food chain, FSIS could declare salmonella to be a food adulterant. “[T]he agency is considering implementing a final product standard or standards to ensure that product contaminated with salmonella that is likely to make people sick is not sold to consumers,” it said.

The USDA will soon release a proposal to name salmonella as an adulterant in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products.

“At the same time, FSIS is exploring if a single product standard for salmonella in all raw poultry products may be appropriate.”

A public meeting will be held on Nov. 3 online to gather input from stakeholders, said the USDA.

To register or for more information about the Nov. 3 meeting online, click here.

A 15-page description of the USDA proposal is available here.

The USDA webpage on its salmonella proposal is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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