Home Trade industry USDA considering new poultry rules to tackle salmonella poisoning – ProPublica

USDA considering new poultry rules to tackle salmonella poisoning – ProPublica

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After decades of failing to reduce the incidence of one of the most common foodborne illnesses, the US government may finally be changing the way it regulates salmonella contamination in chicken and turkey.

On Friday, the United States Department of Agriculture announced that it is considering banning poultry companies from selling raw chicken and turkey contaminated with high levels of certain types of salmonella. Under current regulations, the agency allows raw poultry to be sold in supermarkets even when food safety inspectors know it is contaminated with dangerous strains of bacteria.

Additionally, the USDA said it could require poultry companies to test flocks for Salmonella before they are slaughtered and increase surveillance inside processing plants to prevent the spread of the bacteria. .

Last year, ProPublica reported how flawed federal food safety regulations had done little to prevent people from getting sick from salmonella poisoning and had allowed a virulent strain and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, known as infantis, from spreading widely in the US chicken supply.

After repeated interview requests from ProPublica, the USDA announced it was rethinking its approach to salmonella a week before the survey was released. This announcement launched a year-long effort by the agency to gather input from scientists, industry and consumer advocates to come up with proposals that could improve public health. The USDA said on Friday that infantis is one of the types of salmonella it plans to target.

The USDA’s plan, which it called a “proposed framework,” is still in its early stages and is phrased with terms such as “may propose” and “explore.” And some elements are likely to meet strong resistance from the poultry industry. But if implemented, it would represent the most significant change in salmonella regulation in decades.

“We know salmonella in poultry is a complex problem with no single solution,” Sandra Eskin, USDA deputy assistant secretary for food safety, said in a statement. “However, we have identified a series of strategic actions that FSIS could take that are likely to reduce salmonella infections linked to the consumption of poultry products.” (FSIS stands for Food Safety and Inspection Service, the branch of the USDA that inspects meat and poultry plants.)

Each year, approximately 1.35 million people in the United States become ill from salmonella poisoning. While outbreaks have been linked to onions, peanut butter and pet turtles, the most common source is chicken.

But the USDA has been hampered in its ability to protect consumers. Unlike its European counterparts, salmonella is not allowed to be controlled on farms, where it often spreads. It does not have the power to order recalls and can only ask companies to voluntarily pull products from shelves after an outbreak. And even when it finds lingering contamination in a company’s poultry, the USDA cannot rely on those findings alone to shut down a plant.

As a result, the USDA has instead relied on public designation of poultry plants that have high levels of salmonella. But food safety advocates have criticized the method for years because the agency only tests a tiny fraction of poultry sold to consumers and doesn’t focus on the types of salmonella most likely to make people sick. Similarly, industry representatives have criticized the agency’s approach for not taking into account the amount of bacteria in a product. Greater contamination is more likely to make people sick.

To make it easier to use government data, ProPublica has created an online database that allows consumers to view salmonella records from factories that processed their chicken and turkey.

The USDA proposal addresses many issues that consumer advocates — including Eskin, who worked on food safety for Pew Charitable Trusts before joining the Biden administration — have pointed out for years.

By testing flocks before they are brought into processing plants, the USDA said it hopes to encourage poultry companies to target salmonella on farms by vaccinating birds and improving sanitation in poultry houses. . Such an approach helped the turkey industry eradicate an outbreak of a virulent, antibiotic-resistant strain that plagued turkey flocks and sickened thousands of people from 2017 to 2019.

Another proposal, to increase bacterial sampling inside plants, could help the agency determine where salmonella spreads when birds are stripped of their feathers, dipped in decontaminating chemicals and cut or ground into pieces. turkey breasts, wings and burgers.

But the most ambitious proposal the USDA has said it is exploring is to establish a standard that, for the first time, would prevent the sale of highly contaminated raw chicken and turkey.

This approach would model one of the most successful food safety reforms in American history: the USDA banning the sale of meat contaminated with a strain of E. coli called O157:H7 after several children died after eating hamburgers in the 1990s.

The agency has never done the same for salmonella in poultry, and it could spark a storm among chicken processors. Earlier this year, industry trade group the National Chicken Council sharply criticized an agency proposal to ban low levels of salmonella in a far less popular product: frozen raw breaded stuffed chicken breasts. such as Chicken Cordon Bleu and Chicken kyiv.

The poultry industry has so far taken a more moderate tone toward the USDA’s overall efforts to revamp salmonella regulations. Last year, several poultry giants, including Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Butterball, joined consumer groups in pushing the USDA to update its standards. And a Cargill official was quoted in the USDA press release on Friday as saying the company “supports the need to develop a public health risk-based approach” to reducing salmonella disease.

Still, the National Chicken Council, which has long dominated the USDA, said it was disappointed with the agency’s framework and noted that with current testing methods, salmonella levels have declined in raw chicken.

“We support the need to develop science-based approaches that will impact public health, but it’s being done in reverse,” said Ashley Peterson, the trade group‘s senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs. “The agency formulates regulatory policies and draws conclusions before collecting data, much less analyzing it. This is not science, this is speculation.

The USDA stressed that it is taking a methodical approach, gathering scientific evidence and planning to solicit additional input from industry, consumer groups and scientists.

The changes will likely take months or even years to take effect and could be upended by a political reversal. The agency said it plans to formally propose rules next year with the goal of finalizing them by mid-2024.