Food & Agriculture

CFA Welcomes USDA Move to Address Dangerous Salmonella in Poultry

New Benchmarks Will Better Align Food Inspection with Public Health Goals, but More Work Needed to Protect Consumers

Washington, D.C. —Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) presented plans today to introduce a new “key performance indicator” aimed at reducing Salmonella infections associated with poultry. Consumer advocates have long criticized that federal meat and poultry inspection rules are poorly aligned with public health objectives. The new metric may help to change that.

Rising numbers of foodborne illness infections attributable to poultry motivated the new policy. FSIS officials indicated that since 2012, levels of Salmonella contamination in poultry have dropped significantly. At the same time, however, the overall level of Salmonella infections has stayed the same, and infections attributable to poultry have risen by around 40%. In other words, while FSIS inspectors are finding fewer poultry samples that test positive for Salmonella, more people are getting salmonellosis from chicken and turkey.

That’s because not all Salmonella are equally dangerous. FSIS officials noted that there are over 2,500 Salmonella serotypes, and many of them rarely cause illness. FSIS performance standards for poultry processors, however, are based on the number of samples that test positive for any type of Salmonella species.

“The current performance standards fail to give poultry processors an incentive to distinguish between dangerous Salmonella and relatively innocuous serotypes,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at Consumer Federation of America. “They encourage processors to rely on interventions late in the production process, such as antimicrobial sprays, rather than investing in precautions upstream, such as vaccines for live birds.”

The proposed performance indicator would move U.S. poultry regulation closer to the approach taken by the European Union since 2003. There, regulators have defined targets for reducing the prevalence of a handful of Salmonella serotypes—those most associated with human illness—among live chicken and turkey populations. That policy has been credited with a significant reduction in human salmonellosis cases in EU member countries.

The proposed USDA FSIS policy does not go so far. It simply introduces a metric by which the agency can measure progress among the regulated industry writ large in reducing contamination by Salmonella serotypes most commonly associated with human illness. In its presentation to consumer stakeholders, the agency explained that it planned to use data from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and its own testing program to define which serotypes to target. The agency explained that it will seek to reduce the proportion of samples testing positive for those serotypes each year. How the agency will seek to accomplish those reductions, however, remains to be determined.

“The proposed key performance indicator could give federal regulators a meaningful goal by which to measure progress towards reducing foodborne illness through meat and poultry inspection,” said Gremillion. “Ultimately, however, public policy must provide individual poultry producers with incentives to reduce the level of dangerous Salmonella contamination in their products. Simply setting goals is not enough. We know that from recent experience failing to meet the Healthy People 2020 targets for reducing foodborne illness. To actually reduce foodborne illness caused by poultry, we need enforceable, public-health based standards for processors.”

CFA and other consumer advocates recently petitioned USDA to develop such standards. Their petition also requests that USDA require poultry processors to adopt precautions to reduce food safety risk in their supply chains. Such a science-based approach, from farm to fork, will significantly reduce infections and improve public health, according to CFA and its co-petitioners.

Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 803-447-6639