Tougher USDA standards for poultry pathogens to take effect

Mar 17, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said yesterday its revised standard for Salmonella and its first-time standard for Campylobacter in raw poultry at processing plants will take effect in July, giving processors more incentive to keep the contaminants out of their products.

The new standards are not requirements, but the names of facilities that don't meet the Salmonella standard will be published online, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said in a Federal Register notice. The standards cover facilities that process young chickens and turkeys.

"With the new standards, FSIS is encouraging establishments slaughtering chicken and turkey to make continued reductions in the occurrence of pathogens—namely Salmonella and Campylobacter—in the products they produce," the FSIS said in a news release yesterday.

The agency estimates that once the standards have been in effect for 2 years, the Campylobacter standard will prevent about 5,000 illnesses a year and the Salmonella standard will prevent 20,000 a year.

"While the industry has made significant strides in recent years, far too many Americans continue to fall victim to these foodborne illnesses," Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen said in the release. "These improved standards will drive the industry to do better. They are tough but achievable. And when fully implemented, they will prevent tens of thousands of Americans from getting sick."

Yesterday's announcement came about 10 months after the FSIS first unveiled the standards in May 2010. The original plan was to implement them in July 2010, but the agency decided to analyze public comments on them first, the Federal Register notice says.

The revised Salmonella standard says that for chickens, no more than 5 samples in a 51-sample set should test positive, compared with 12 out of 51 positives under the old standard, set in 1998, FSIS officials told CIDRAP News. For turkeys, the standard is no more than 4 samples in a 56-sample set, versus 13 out of 56 previously.

The FSIS notice did not list standards in percentages of positive samples, but reports and statements from others have put the new Salmonella standard for chicken at 7.5%, versus 20% previously.

For Campylobacter, the standard is no more than 10.4% positive samples for chicken and 0.79% for turkeys, the FSIS notice says. For comparison, an FSIS baseline survey in 2007-08 found the pathogen in 46% of chicken carcasses at processing plants. The agency noted that a Consumer Reports study last year found Campylobacter in 62% of retail chicken samples. That same study found Salmonella in 14% of retail chicken samples.

The notice said the names of facilities that fail to meet the revised Salmonella standard will be published online after the FSIS finishes analyzing samples taken in July of this year.

The FSIS decided not to publish the names of plants that fail to meet the Campylobacter standards. The agency made the decision "after evaluating comments pointing out the complexities of Campylobacter and considering the agency's lack of experience with verification sampling for this organism," the notice said.

Industry and consumer group reactions
In a statement yesterday, the National Chicken Council, an industry group, said chicken processors would continue their "tremendous efforts" to keep their products safe and suggested that the industry overall is already meeting the revised Salmonella standard for chicken.

The group said the new standard is 7.5%. The latest published FSIS reports show that in the third quarter of 2010, an average of 7.4% of chicken carcasses at processing plants nationwide tested positive for Salmonella, the council said, adding, "The actual experience in processing plants is believed to be somewhat lower since the government tends to conduct more sampling in plants with higher Salmonella results."

The new standards were welcomed by Food and Water Watch (FWW), an advocacy group that works on food safety and environmental issues. In a statement yesterday, the group said the new standards will help to correct some deficiencies in the FSIS Salmonella testing program that FWW cited in reports in 2006 and 2008.

However, FWW called on the FSIS to publish both the Salmonella and Campylobacter results for all facilities, not just those that fail to meet the Salmonella standard. "The agency’s decision not to post the results of campylobacter tests by plant will deprive the public of vital information about companies' progress in reducing this pathogen," the group said.

Impetus for standards
President Obama's Food Safety working Group called on the FSIS in 2009 to set new Salmonella standards and to work to ensure that 90% of facilities would meet them by the end of 2010, according to the FSIS notice. The FSIS also consulted with the working group in committing to the new Campylobacter standard.

The notice says sampling results for 2010 show that 86% of chicken plants and 88% of turkey would have met the Salmonella standard if it were in effect then.

The new FSIS estimates of illnesses that the new standards may prevent are lower than what the agency cited when it first unveiled the standards last year. At that time the agency predicted that the standards could prevent 39,000 Campylobacter and 26,000 Salmonella cases annually; the new estimates are 5,000 and 20,000, respectively.

The agency said it adjusted its public health predictions on the basis of new illness-attribution data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other technical factors also contributed to the lower predictions, including a change in the size of sample portions used in testing for Campylobacter, officials said.

The predictions assume that about 50% of currently noncompliant facilities will eventually comply with the new standards.

See also:

FSIS Federal Register notice

Mar 16 FSIS press release

May 10, 2010, CIDRAP NEWS story on the USDA standards

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