Food & Agriculture

New USDA Policy on Salmonella in Poultry Offers Hope for Progress on Foodborne Illness

For the First Time, USDA Will Consider Salmonella to be an “Adulterant” in Raw Poultry, with New Rules to Protect Consumers from Products Contaminated with the Bacteria

Washington, D.C. —USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Sandra Eskin today announced sweeping changes in how the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will regulate Salmonella bacteria in poultry. For years, CFA has criticized the discrepancy between federal regulators’ treatment of Salmonella and that of other pathogens considered “adulterants,” such as E. coli O157:H7. Today’s announcement marks a critical step towards bridging that policy gap.

“This announcement represents a sea change in how poultry is inspected in the United States,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at Consumer Federation of America. “Rather than certifying a poultry processing establishment’s safety, FSIS will now certify the safety of each poultry product itself. And that’s what matters to consumers.”

FSIS will begin by declaring Salmonella an adulterant in breaded and stuffed raw chicken products. Never before has the agency considered Salmonella an adulterant in a raw chicken product, and the policy represents an important affirmation of the agency’s authority. Breaded raw chicken products have been implicated in 14 outbreaks since 1998, in part because so many consumers misunderstand their cooking requirements. The bigger public health impacts from the FSIS policy change, however, will follow from rules that apply to the broader universe of raw chicken products.

According to Deputy Under Secretary Eskin, FSIS will announce new rules that establish enforceable final product standards for raw poultry, in lieu of the performance standards that now apply to poultry processors. Under the current rules, a poultry processor may lawfully sell meat contaminated with high levels of virulent Salmonella, so long as weekly testing indicates that the prevalence of contamination in the plant is infrequent. Under a product-based standard, FSIS will define limits that prohibit certain types of Salmonella, levels of contamination, or both.  If Salmonella contamination on a product violates those limits, the product will be considered adulterated.

FSIS is also planning policy changes that may help to transform poultry supply chains, reducing the incidence of Salmonella in poultry before it comes through the slaughterhouse door. According to Eskin, the agency will propose testing requirements for incoming flocks of birds at each establishment. This testing could be used to identify flocks that harbor dangerous Salmonella strains, high levels of Salmonella contamination, or both, so that establishments can take added precautions to ensure the meat from these flocks is not adulterated, and work with partners further up the supply chain to reduce contamination at the source.

“Testing incoming birds is a critical element of a rational Salmonella control plan,” said Gremillion. “Salmonella is vertically transmitted. A single pedigree female chicken may have over three million offspring, and if that breeding hen is infected with a dangerous strain of Salmonella, it can spread throughout the food system and wreak havoc on public health.”

Supply chain controls feature prominently in a recent petition filed by CFA and consumer advocacy partners, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest. As noted in the petition, some of the most effective strategies for reducing Salmonella infections, such as vaccinating birds against the most dangerous strains of the bacteria, must be implemented “preharvest,” or before the birds are slaughtered. The experience of many European countries provides strong evidence that programs to control Salmonella in live poultry flocks will lead to significant declines in human Salmonella infections.

For now, many details remain to be determined. FSIS has yet to initiate formal rulemaking on any of the proposals discussed by Eskin, a process that normally takes years to complete. By starting with breaded and stuffed raw chicken products, the agency has chosen a high-risk but also very small product category.

“If FSIS wants to end decades of stalled progress on reducing foodborne illness, it will have to make rules that apply to all chicken, not just products that appear to be cooked,” said Gremillion. “But today’s announcement is an important step in the right direction.”

Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 803-447-6639