The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) this month announced a plan to declare salmonella an “adulterant” in certain chicken products, a move hailed by consumer advocates but met with concerns from the poultry industry.
The agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) intends to consider breaded and stuffed raw chicken products adulterated when they exceed a low level of salmonella contamination, 1 colony forming unit (CFU) of salmonella per gram. Such products would be subject to regulatory action under the plan outlined by FSIS in an Aug. 1 press release.
FSIS, which anticipates publishing a Federal Register notice in the fall seeking comments on its plan, said it believes the proposed level “will significantly reduce the risk of illness from consuming these products.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates salmonella causes roughly 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths in the U.S. annually, with most illnesses attributable to contaminated food. Breaded and stuffed raw chicken products, which are found in the freezer section and include some chicken cordon bleu or chicken Kiev products, have been linked to 14 outbreaks and about 200 illnesses, according to FSIS.
“Food safety is at the heart of everything FSIS does,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the news release. “That mission will guide us as this important first step launches a broader initiative to reduce salmonella illnesses associated with poultry in the U.S.”
The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which petitioned USDA in January 2021 to create enforceable standards for salmonella in poultry products, lauded the agency’s recent announcement.
Sarah Sorscher, CSPI’s deputy director for regulatory affairs, said national polling conducted last year showed 86 percent of voters support a proposal for USDA to enact stricter rules on poultry production aimed at curtailing salmonella poisoning and other illnesses.
“Consumers trust that USDA inspection means a product is safe,” Sorscher said in a statement. “For too long, the USDA hasn’t lived up to that promise when it comes to salmonella in poultry. The agency’s failure to develop enforceable standards before now means that dangerously contaminated chicken is routinely stamped ‘USDA inspected’ and placed on store shelves. With today’s announcement, we finally have reason to hope that change is on its way.”
The National Chicken Council (NCC), a trade association representing the chicken industry, expressed concerns that USDA’s announcement could lead to closure of processing plants, job loss and removal of convenient and safe food from store shelves.
“NCC is concerned about the precedent set by this abrupt shift in longstanding policy, made without supporting data, for a product category that has only been associated with one outbreak since 2015,” Ashley Peterson, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs with NCC, said in a statement.
NCC and its “member companies have invested millions of dollars and have worked for more than a decade to develop and refine best practices for these products to reduce salmonella and protect public health,” according to Peterson. “These efforts have been paying off, demonstrated by a significant decline in illness over the past seven years.”
Peterson raised concerns that USDA’s “announcement was not science-based or data-driven.”
“Going back to the passage of the Poultry Products Inspection Act in 1957, the mere presence of salmonella has not rendered raw poultry adulterated,” she said. “We believe FSIS already has the regulatory and public health tools to work with the industry to ensure the continued safety of these products. We’ve been asking the agency for years to collaborate on these efforts, including two petitions for stricter regulations, requests that have gone largely ignored.”
Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, who has represented the victims of foodborne illness outbreaks for decades, described USDA’s recent announcement in the headline of his blog as “a baby step, but a step forward nonetheless.”
Marler of the law firm Marler Clark suggested USDA’s proposed new standards could eventually result in fewer cases of foodborne illness tied to salmonella in chicken, as was the case with E. coli O157:H7 in hamburger after the latter bacteria was deemed an adulterant in 1994 by USDA.
“From the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993 to the ConAgra E. coli outbreak in 2002, about 90% of my law firm revenue was E. coli O157:H7 cases linked to hamburger,” Marler reflected in his blog commenting on USDA’s recent announcement. “Deeming E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant did not change things overnight, but the government, industry and consumers over that decade worked hard to ‘Put me out of Business, Please.’”
Marler, who in an email said he has recovered more than $850 million on behalf of his clients, added in his blog, “Today, and for the last 20 years, E. coli cases—O157 and/or ‘the Big Six’— linked to hamburger has been a small and diminishing factor in my practice. It works—ask my accountant.”
FSIS’s announcement is part of larger efforts to reduce salmonella illnesses linked to poultry. USDA in October 2021 disclosed it was reassessing its strategy for controlling salmonella in poultry, including whether salmonella should be deemed an adulterant in specific raw poultry products. USDA cited an estimate from an interagency government report than more than 23% of consumer illnesses due to salmonella are related to consumption of chicken and turkey.
“Reducing salmonella infections attributable to poultry is one of the Department’s top priorities,” USDA Deputy Under Secretary Sandra Eskin, who is leading the initiative, said in an October 2021 press release. “Time has shown that our current policies are not moving us closer to our public health goal. It’s time to rethink our approach.”
USDA has subsequently met with stakeholders to solicit their ideas, requested recommendations from food safety experts and turned to industry for ideas to test various control strategies in poultry establishments.
In October, USDA intends to offer a proposed framework for a new comprehensive strategy to decrease salmonella illnesses attributable to poultry, followed by a public meeting in November.
“There is no silver bullet or one-size-fits all approach to food safety, which is why we employ a multi-stage strategy,” Peterson of the National Chicken Council said. “The only way to ensure our food is safe 100 percent of the time is by following science-based procedures when raising and processing chicken, and by handling and cooking it properly at home.”
She added, “NCC remains confident these products can be prepared and consumed safely, and the industry remains committed to continuing their efforts to further enhance the safety of these products.”