May 10, 2010 (CIDRAP News) The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) today unveiled new standards aimed at reducing Salmonella and Campylobacter in broiler chickens and turkeys, a step the agency expects will prevent tens of thousands of illnesses each year.
The USDA said the new Campylobacter standard is the first such benchmark for that pathogen. At least one consumer group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), praised the standards as a major improvement in food safety.
The standards, designed to encourage producers to continue to reduce the levels of pathogens in chicken and turkey products, set a maximum percentage of samples testing positive for a given pathogen at an establishment, the USDA said in a statement. The stricter performance standards are based on recent nationwide studies that measured baseline levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter in broiler chickens and turkeys.
"The new standards announced today mark an important step in our efforts to protect consumers by further reducing the incidence of Salmonella and opening a new front in the fight against Campylobacter," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated. The USDA said that the Salmonella standard for chickens was last revised in 1996 and the one for turkeys in 2005.
The USDA also issued two compliance guides, one on the new Salmonella and Campylobacter standards and one on best practices for preventing Escherichia coli O157:H7 in cattle during the preslaughter stage. It said it is seeking comments over the next 60 days on the new performance standards and compliance guides and hopes to start using them after analyzing the comments and making any appropriate changes.
President Obama's Food Safety Working Group has set a goal of having 90% of all poultry establishments meet the revised Salmonella standard by the end of 2010. USDA officials said the new standards fulfill one of the group's key recommendations.
In January a Consumer Reports survey found that 66% of chicken samples from retail outlets nationwide were contaminated with either Campylobacter or Salmonella. Campylobacter was found in 62% of samples, Salmonella in 14%, and both in 9%. The magazine said levels had fallen since 2007 but were still too high. The National Chicken Council countered that a more comprehensive USDA survey had found lower contamination rates.
The USDA today estimated that after 2 years under the new standards, about 39,000 Campylobacter cases and about 26,000 Salmonella cases will be avoided each year.
The CSPI today hailed the new performance standard as the USDA's most significant food safety step in the last 15 years. It said the new standard drops the target level for Salmonella by 60% and will push the poultry industry to improve the safety of its products.
The CSPI said that ince 1996, when the USDA adopted the HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control point) approach to food safety, the agency has said it would regularly update its performance standards. "But the agency never delivered on this promise until now," it said in a statement. "Performance standards are the metric for measuring whether a company is maintaining control over the pathogens that are often present on poultry, which cause millions of illnesses each year."
The CSPI said chicken and turkey will be safer once the standards are implemented, especially if retailers avoid companies that the USDA says need improvement. However, the group added that to fully gain the benefit of the new standards, Congress needs the authority to enforce them by closing plants that fail to meet the measures.
Obama appointed the Food Safety Working Group in March 2009, and the group released its food safety plan in July. The administration's focus on food safety issues comes in the wake of several recent highly publicized foodborne illness outbreaks involving products such as peanuts, hot peppers, ground beef, and fresh greens.
May 10 USDA press release
USDA docket on new performance standards for Salmonella and Campylobacter in young chicken and turkey
Compliance guidelines for controlling Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry
Preharvest guidelines for controlling E coli O157:H7 in cattle
Jan Consumer Reports survey
Nov 2009 National Chicken Council statement
May 10 CSPI press release